The Aircraft Carrier

Plane taking off from USS Franklin Roosevelt
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

USS Franklin D. Roosevelt at anchor
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.

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

USS Forrestal – the Navy’s first supercarrier
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.

USS Ticonderoga underway
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.

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 honored 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.

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, defense 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 canceled 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,
favoritism, 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
Defense 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.

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.

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.

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. Americanbases 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?” 

–Pamela Feltus
The Centennial of Flight


Tom. Carrier: A Guided Tour of an
Aircraft Carrier. New York: Berkley Books, 1999.

Bill. History of Military Aviation. London:
Hamlyn, 2000

Philip. Fly Navy: Naval Aviators and
Carrier Aviation. London: Aurum Press, 2001.

Aircraft Carrier.”

Museum of Naval Aviation Supercarrier Page:

Aviation History Office. “Evolution of Aircraft Carriers.”

USS Forrestal Museum:

Herman S. “Revolt of the Admirals” from