Chapter 1 - The Early Years

(Part 1)


In the world of aviation, nothing is as exciting as the rush of a catapult launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier . . . and nothing as frightening as a night approach toward the pitching deck of that same carrier.

Born almost simultaneously with the development of the aeroplane, the aircraft carrier has become the most awesome weapon (other than the "bomb") in any nation's military arsenal. It had its baptism of fire during World War I, was key to victory during World War II, was largely misused in Korea and Vietnam, and is the rapid deployment force in the current era of regional conflicts.

The technical history of the aircraft carrier has already been told many times by military experts in exhaustive volumes. The stories of specific ships and naval air forces have also been adequately covered in print. However, in this modest history, I attempt to give the lay person a brief overview of the role that the aircraft carrier and naval airpower have played in the many wars and conflicts of the 20th Century. In addition to the narrative section, this book contains a directory of all aircraft carriers of the world with class-ship drawings hyperlinked to each class-ship name.

This history, including the accompanying thumbnail photos, has been compiled mainly from publications of the U.S. Naval Institute, which are listed in the bibliography. It is as factually accurate as possible, based on those sources. However, I welcome your comments, corrections, and suggestions for future updates.

Before the Aeroplane

The first recorded use of an aerial device from aboard a ship occurred in 1806, almost 100 years before the Wright Brother's first powered flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903. On that occasion, the Royal Navy's Lord Thomas Cochrane flew kites from the 32-gun frigate HMS Pallas to spread propaganda leaflets over the French coast. Some 43 years later, on July 12, 1849, the Austrian vessel Vulcano launched a manned hot air balloon to drop bombs on Venice. However, because of unfavorable winds, the attempt was unsuccessful.

Later, during the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate Navies launched manned hot air balloons from small steamboats to observe each other's activities. In fact, it can be said that the world's first "carrier task force" was formed when the Union Navy's balloon barge George Washington Parke Custis, towed by the tug Stepping Stone and in company of the sloop Wachusett, the gunboats Tioga and Port Royal, and the armed transport Delaware, sailed to Fort Powhattan to observe the Union Army's attack on Confederate forces.

The next widespread use of balloons from aboard ship did not occur until World War I, when Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Sweden converted a total of ten vessels for use as balloon tenders. The tethered "kite" balloons launched by these ships were used primarily as aerial observation posts. Most of these ships were either retired or converted to seaplane tenders by the end of the War.

Balloon Carrier
The Russian ballon carrier Russ was typical
of the type

[All Photos from U.S. Naval Institute publications]

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Last Updated: January 1, 2003