This year marks the centennial of the American aircraft carrier. The USS Langley (CV-1), the Navy’s first flattop, was commissioned on March 20, 1922. In the 100 years since that auspicious event, the carrier proved a decisive weapon in history’s largest naval war, and largely defined the naval character of the Cold War that followed. Over last 30 years, carrier-based aircraft were critical strike elements of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States, however, cannot claim first prize in the operational deployment of the carrier. Although America took an early lead in trying to operate aircraft from ships, there wasn’t any urgency. The British Navy, on the other hand, was challenged by Germany for naval superiority during World War I, not just with guns, but with zeppelin airships. Though massive, the hydrogen-filled zeppelins cruised at high altitudes with enough agility to evade anti-aircraft artillery. They not only spied effortlessly on the British fleet’s movements in the North Sea, but were capable of dropping aerial bombs on Britain.

Although airborne interception could destroy zeppelins, the Royal Navy found its seaplanes were not up to the task. The answer lay in land-based aircraft, but their short range and lack of landing areas at sea were formidable obstacles to overcome. Pilots could ditch into the sea, but a water landing and rescue from the frigid North Sea were dicey. Fortunately, England enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in capital ship construction, and a large swift warship soon became available.

The battlecruiser HMS Furious was altered in early 1917 replacing its forward gun turret with flying-off deck. Even with the conversion, she retained her high speed, but now had the capacity for several wheeled aircraft on the partial flight deck. The trouble was in finding a way to recover those aircraft back aboard after their missions.

HMS Furious reconfigured with forward and aft flight decks.

The landing speeds of fighters of the day were just within Furious’ speed racing into the wind. On Aug. 2, 1917, Squadron Leader Edwin Dunning approached Furious from behind and flew his Sopwith Pup alongside the ship’s towering superstructure just above the stall speed of the aircraft. Several of the ship’s officers stood waiting on the blustery forward flight deck, ready to grasp leather loops fastened under the wings of Dunning’s aircraft. 

As Dunning eased past Furious’ bridge, he side-slipped the Pup over the flight deck and reduced power, allowing the wallowing wings to momentarily hover over the outstretched arms, permitting a completely manual landing. Upon touchdown, Dunning became the first pilot to land a plane on a moving ship. Five days later, another landing attempt by Dunning met with tragedy when his engine choked as he slid across the deck pitching the aircraft over the starboard bow of the ship. He drowned in his sinking aircraft.

A separate landing space for returning aircraft was now undeniable, so the ship’s aft gun turret was removed and replaced with second partial flight deck. The towering bridge structure and massive exhaust funnel, however, remained amidships. Predictably, attempts to land aircraft directly into the face of severe air turbulence and hot stack gasses frequently pitched even experienced pilots into the ship’s wake, so landings on Furious were ultimately forbidden.

Sopwith Camels on the HMS Furious flight deck prior to the raid on the Tondern zeppelin base on July 19, 1918.

Furious, however, could still launch warplanes and on July 19, 1918, seven

bomb-armed Sopwith Camels set off from her deck to attack a German zeppelin base at Tondern, Denmark. Six of the aircraft were able to continue the mission and destroyed a hangar housing and two zeppelins. Half of the pilots landed in neutral Denmark, and two were rescued at sea. Although the sixth pilot was lost, history’s first aircraft carrier strike was deemed a rousing success.

By now, the British Admiralty realized that a continuous flight deck was the correct form for an aircraft carrier, and once again, England’s ship surplus supplied a solution. An incomplete ocean liner destined for Italy received a redesign including a full flight deck and elevators to move aircraft from the hangar deck below. In November 1918, as the war ended, the new HMS Argus emerged as the first true aircraft carrier, more than three years ahead of the USS Langley’s commissioning.

Following World War I, Furious underwent a complete overhaul and was outfitted with a full-length flight deck. Reclassified as an aircraft carrier in 1925, she served the Royal Navy through World War II before being decommissioned and ultimately sold for scrap in 1948. Although her final chapter was less than glorious, Furious is hailed as playing a key role in the birth of carrier aviation.

Comments are closed.