Author

Karl Zingheim, Midway Historian

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British efforts to take wheeled aircraft to sea in the First World War did not evade American scrutiny. English attempts to create the aircraft carrier impressed U.S. observers. Even at war’s end, the United Kingdom’s apparent commitment to a burgeoning fleet of aircraft-capable ships added to the pressure for an American aircraft carrier. 

Although technical limitations gave carrier opponents momentary heft, the threat of a future hostile Royal Navy able to assert command of the oceans’ sky became impossible to ignore. Likewise, opposition to the diversion of funds and resources towards such an experimental ship wilted when the prospect of a Japanese threat grew after the Treaty of Versailles doled out territorial rewards for Tokyo’s participation in the war.

The clinching argument for further advancing an at-sea aviation force was a practical demonstration of how aircraft could enhance battleship gunnery. In March 1919, the battleship USS Texas engaged in a training exercise using an observer

aircraft that wirelessly telegraphed fall of shot corrections in real time, resulting in an unprecedented accuracy. Although battleships could carry their own spotter aircraft as floatplanes, their performance limitations meant that protecting those planes, and denying the enemy its own, required wheeled fighter aircraft.

Not long after, studies of battles from World War I concluded that engaging enemy battleships from long range, producing a vertically plunging shell to defeat thinner deck armor, would be decisive. Only control of the sky could make that feasible.

On July 11, 1919, the U.S. Navy authorized the conversion of a 7-year-old collier, the USS Jupiter, into an aircraft carrier. Work began at the Norfolk Navy Yard, and on March 20, 1922, the first U.S. Navy carrier was commissioned as the USS Langley.

As a proof-of-concept platform, the Langley literally had her new aviation components superimposed over the hull of the former naval coal-transport ship. A full-length wooden flight deck sat upon a lattice network, while rigged nets served in place of catwalks. A single elevator lowered aircraft to the newly created hangar deck where a gantry crane then lifted the biplanes to a suitable open space. An untried flywheel catapult offered a method to getting the aircraft airborne, but the all-important landing system was still in development.

On Oct. 17, 1920, the first takeoff occurred, while designers continued work on the development a suitable arresting gear system. Eventually, cables strung across the new carrier’s flight deck to engage a dangling aircraft hook proved safe and efficient. The first landing on Langley took place a week later.

As a testbed, the Langley pioneered practical methods to operate aircraft around a warship. With the ship moving into the wind, and with the noise of the aircraft engines, a simple color-coded jersey system of identifying different flight deck crew made coordination simpler. One day, Langley’s executive officer, Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting, saw that a landing aircraft was too high and urgently waved his cap to warn the pilot off. Thus, the role of the landing signal officer (LSO) was invented.

In November 1924, the Langley arrived in San Diego as part of the major shift of the U.S. Navy assets to the Pacific. Although San Pedro was her official home port, the convenience of being pierside at Naval Air Station North Island made San Diego a familiar sight. The following year, Capt. Joseph Mason Reeves reported to North Island in command of the Navy’s operating aviation squadron.

Fresh from the Naval War College, Reeves was obsessed with how shipboard aviation could decisively enhance the battleship gunline. While operations aboard the Langley had been devoted to technical development and procedures, he demanded that the Langley demonstrate her combat potential. Astounded to hear that no more than eight aircraft had ever been embarked, Reeves upped the number to 14, and then, personally supervised a loadout of 42. In a lecture to the fleet’s pilots at North Island, he rhetorically stipulated there must be a “thousand and one questions” about what carriers could do, and they would find out together.

The Navy engaged in fleet-wide annual exercises to develop new concepts, and in 1928, the Langley carried out a surprise mock attack on Pearl Harbor. The promise of airpower at sea was now so compelling, that even battleship admirals were now pounding wardroom tabletops demanding the delivery of the next carriers. The immense USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) joined the fleet in 1927. However, the “Covered Wagon,” as the Langley was nicknamed, had pioneered the way.