Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

the aircraft carrier

July 21, 1946 - In the first U.S. test of the adaptability of jet aircraft to shipboard operations, an FD-1 Phantom, piloted by Cmdr. James Davidson made successful landings and take-offs on board the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt

In the second half of the 20th century, the aircraft carrier became a symbol of the United States’ position as a superpower. These massive ships had been essential to Allied victory in the Pacific during World War II, but afterward, they began to find a new important role as the "forward military presence" of the United States, arriving first on the scene of trouble. Since 1946, when the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt was sent to Greece to symbolize support for the pro-Western side during Greece’s civil war against the communists, the carrier has shown up to warn potential enemies that America is watching. Former President Bill Clinton honoured the carrier’s importance when he said, "When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘where is the nearest carrier?’" Providing "forward presence," the aircraft carrier remains an extremely important part of America’s power and image. 

Between Aug. 6 and Oct. 4, 1946, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt deployed to the Mediterranean Sea. The carrier made a port visit at Athens, reemphasizing U.S. support of the pro-Western Greek government, involved in a civil war against Communist insurgents. This was the earliest example of forward presence.

But the carrier was almost relegated to history after World War II. Foreseeing the inevitable post-war budget battles, navy leaders had spent World War II rallying for funding for the next generation of carriers. They knew that peace would arrive before these ships were built, but they also understood that in peacetime, funding would be harder to secure.  

The end of the war would also signal the arrival of the navy’s first jet aircraft to operate off the deck of a carrier, the Douglas A3D Skyraider. Jet power, coupled with the navy’s desire to have planes that could carry nuclear bombs, meant that these new carriers would be too small. The navy now needed carriers with more deck space. These larger carriers would be called supercarriers.  

Money for a new fleet of supercarriers, however, was hard to come by because, after the war, defence spending had been reduced to a level that would support only one large project. The competitors were the air force’s B-36 bomber and the navy’s supercarrier. The air force claimed that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had proven that a bomber equipped with nuclear weapons made other weaponry obsolete. The navy, on the other hand, replied that since the supercarrier was large enough to launch large bombers equipped with nuclear ordnance closer to the target, it was a better investment.   

The air force won, and the supercarrier project was cancelled even though the keel of the first supercarrier, the USS United States, had been laid down just five days earlier. The keel became scrap metal. The navy and the Marine Corps, which usually did not cooperate on funding issues, united to discredit the air force project, afraid that the funding of the B-36 was the first move in the process to unify all aviation under one service, a development they opposed. Termed the "Revolt of the Admirals," their investigators exposed fraud, favouritism, and misrepresentation associated with the bomber. Nevertheless, congressional hearings cleared the air force of all wrongdoing, and the navy was accused of being the one service not cooperating in the new Department of Defence organization. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Omar Bradley, went so far as to say that the navy "won’t hit the line with all they have on every play unless they can call the signals." Although Congress did appropriate money for the navy to modernize the current carrier fleet and develop jet aircraft, many admirals were forced to retire and some programs were cut.

The USS Valley Forge launched the first carrier air strikes in Korea on July 3, 1950.

When the Korean War began the next year, the carrier was given a chance to prove its value. Within days of North Korea’s invasion of the south, the USS Valley Forge arrived off the coast of Korea with the British light carrier Triumph. The navy planes performed all types of missions but primarily provided close air support. Consequently, Congress finally gave the navy funding for its supercarrier. 

During the war, the jet airplanes had problems with the carriers then in service. Because of the jet’s speed, the plane’s tailhook did not always catch the arresting wires (the wires strung across the carrier deck that first slowed and then stopped the plane) when it landed, so the plane could not stop before it skidded into the bank of parked airplanes, causing much damage. The British had already developed an angled deck that allowed a plane that missed the wire to take off again from a clear runway (a move called a "bolter"). The first American supercarrier, named the USS Forrestal, debuted in 1955 with an angled deck, as well as new steam catapults sufficiently powerful to launch powerful large jets.

October 1, 1955 - USS Forrestal, the first of four ships of her class and the Navy's first supercarrier was placed in commission at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Va.  

The modern aircraft carrier functions as a small city at sea, with not only a small airport on deck but also medical offices, machine shops, law offices, security, food service, housing, and power plants among other things supporting the crew of several thousand. Most carriers can carry about 85 vehicles, including fighter jets to protect the fleet, transport helicopters, submarine hunting planes, search and rescue helicopters, and missiles. Planes such as the F/A-18 Hornet, which can perform different types of missions, are most valued for the options they give the fleet. And because of the demands of carrier flight, which include violent landings that are essentially crashes onto the deck, carrier airplane frames are stronger than frames on other planes. In the past this had meant that they were heavier and less agile than their land-based counterparts, but due to new materials such as composites and carbons, the new carrier planes can perform as well as other planes.   

In the military actions of the second half of the 20th century, aircraft carriers performed essential roles, proving their versatility and becoming the prime forward presence of the United States. When the Marines landed on the beaches of Beirut in 1958, carrier-based airplanes covered them. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John Kennedy sent the carriers USS Enterprise, Independence, Essex, and Randolph to set up a naval quarantine around Cuba. And when the USS Maddox, a destroyer on electronic intelligence patrol in the Tonkin Gulf off Vietnam in August 1964, was attacked by three Communist patrol boats, the USS Ticonderoga and Constellation arrived in the area within days, and their jets launched bombing raids against North Vietnamese patrol boat bases and an oil storage depot. These were the first air missions of the war.  

During the Vietnam War, navy planes based on carriers located in the Tonkin Gulf suffered heavy losses. In 1968, the USS Oriskany lost half its aircraft, 39 vehicles, in 122 days. In fact, losing at least 20 aircraft per cruise was not uncommon during the war. The morale of naval aviators plummeted as a result, but they fought hard until the last helicopter landed on a carrier after the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

August 2, 1964 - Aircraft from USS Ticonderoga drove off North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats attacking the destroyer USS Maddox, patrolling international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Toward the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, the U.S. aircraft carrier remained the country’s forward presence. With three carriers always on a cruise somewhere in the world, normally in the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific Ocean, and Persian Gulf, they can reach hot spots quickly. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the USS Eisenhower, cruising in the Mediterranean, was able to reach the Red Sea, within striking distance of Iraq, in two days. And because, by international law, aircraft carriers are sovereign U.S. territory when in international waters, they eliminate the need for the United States to gain permission from a host nation to position planes or troops on their territory. American bases in foreign countries, increasingly unpopular and the focus of anger and resentment among native populations, do not need to be built or maintained. Carriers are free to roam the seas, which make up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Their speed and flexibility allow them to bring firepower and presence anywhere they are needed. In the words of President Clinton, and every president since World War II, the most important question in times of tension is "where is the nearest carrier?"