Development of the A/C Carrier

During World War I , many of the major naval powers converted vessels to handle and accommodate floatplanes or fly-off aeroplanes which had to land ashore. Naval aviation progressed very rapidly during this period. The British were the first to introduce a vessel having a “landing deck” which could both launch and recover aircraft when HMS ARGUS was completed in September 1918.

The ARGUS was converted from a passenger liner under construction in one of the shipyards on the Clyde at Glasgow. Featuring a full length flight deck and a large aircraft hanger, the design influenced the aircraft carrier as we know it today.

Before the end of World War I, the Royal Navy had two additional aircraft carriers under construction, HMS EAGLE and HMS HERMES. The EAGLE was being converted from a battleship which was under construction but eh HERMES was to have the istinction of being the first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier.

After the end of World War I, the German High Seas Fleet was dismantled in 1919, but in 1921, the remaining major naval powers were still attempting to continue their massive building programs. Faced with the problems of post-war recession, it was obvious that financial outlay for naval constuction could not be continued much longer.

The practical solution was negotiation, the oucome of which was the Washington Treaty signed on 6 February 1922 by Great Britaink the United States, Japan, France and Italy. It mandated a “building holiday” for ten years, restricted the total tonnage that each country could build and specified the maximum weight and gun caliber for each type of combatant. This establishment was referred to as the “5-5-3” ratio.

Of their total tonnage, the U.S. Navy was alloted 135,000 tons of aircraft carrier construction with a maximum of 27,000 tons per ship. Existing carriers and those under construction were exempted from the Treaty tonnage. Since the Treaty required each signatory country to scrap a number of capital ships, in the interest of economy, it allowed each country to convert two capital shps to aircraft carriers not to exceed 33,000 tons each.

The Washington Treaty provided for a conference to be held at the end of the “building holiday” and the second naval arms limitations conference was convened in London in 1930. Although there were considerable differences between the participants, the London Treaty of 1930 extended the “building holiday” for another five years.

In 1936, by the time the next conference was held in London, a new naval arms race4 was well underway. Germany, not a signatory to the Washington or London Treaties, had laid down the “pocket battleship” DEUTSCHLAND, France was building the DUNKERQUE in reply and Italy was countering with a 35,000 ton battlesip. The Japanese, meanwhile, withdrew entirely from participation in the Treaty.

The remaining signatory countries inserted an”escalator clause” wich would allow them parity with those powers not participating in the Treaty. It was required that other signatories be consulted before any action was taken but this was only a fomality to justify the increase in new construction. 

In 1927, the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier was the LANGLEY (CV 1)

The U.S. Navy began its carrier program in mid-1919 when the Congress appropriated funds for the conversion of the collier JUPITER (AC 3) to an aircraft carrier. It was accepted that the new carrier, renamed LANGLEY (CV 1), would be too small and slow to operate effectively as a fleet carrier, owever, she was intended for training aviators in take-off and landing operations at sea and for developing aircraft launching and recovery systems and equipment.

While operating with the battle fleet during the battle problems of the 1920s, the LANGLEY formulated the early U.S. Navycarrier doctrine and initiated experiments that helped shape the development of carrier equipment such as arresting gear, elevators, and catapults.

Originally laid down just after World War I, the LEXINGTON (CV 2) and SARATOGA (cv 3) were two of the six 43,500 ton battle cruisers cancelled by the Washington Treaty of 1922.


Completed as carriers, the ‘LEX’ and ‘SARA’ displaced 33,000 tons. They were the fastest and largest ships afloat. The sleek lines of their battle cruiser hulls and large power plants made them capable of over 34 knots. Although the British battle cruiser HOOD displaced 42,000 tons, they were nearly 30′ longer.

The first U.S. Navy ship designed and built as an aircraft carrier in 1934, was the 14,500 ton RANGER (CV 4) incorporating features which would become standard on later carriers.

With the limited operational experience gathered from our first three carriers, the General Board ( a group of senior naval officers that advised the Secretary of the Navy on fundamental naval policy regarding strategy, tactics ans ship’s characteristics) developed a set of requirements and recommended the construction of one 13,800 ton carrier to utilize some of the Treaty tonnage. Congressional approval was given to construt the vessel as part of the Fiscal Year 1929 building program.

The Bu C&R (Bureau of Construction and Repair) prepared the design plans and the RANGER (CV 4) was ordered from Newport News Sipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. The RANGER completed at 14,500 tons in June 1934 and became the first U.S. Naval vessel designed and built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier.

Although she proved to be too small to operate the large air groups considered essential for later designs, the RANGER incorporated a number of features which would become standard for future carriers including an open hangar deck and a gallery deck around and partially under the flight deck.

Although design work on the YORKTOWN class ( below) began in 1931 it was not completed until 1934.

The Congress did not appropriate money for new carrier construction until June 1933 and the design was interrupeted for higher priority building programs. This delay, however, gave additional time for consideration of characteristics which were repidly changing as the fleet gained valuable experience with their three carriers. The RANGER was not even completed when the CV 5 design was fixed and by the time she became operational she was already obsolescent.

Again, although design work on the YORKTOWN class began in 1931 it was not completed until 1934. The Congress did not appropriate money for new carrier construction until June 1933 and the design was interruped for higher priority building programs.

The YORKTOWNs were the first modern carriers designed by the U.S. Navy from real operational experience with the fleet. Even with their design deficiencies, they strongly influenced the following CV 9 class. It is important, therefore, to examine their design in mor detail. Contracts for the YORKTOWN (CV 5) and ENTERPRISE (cv 6) were awarded to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. on 3 August 1933. A third ship, the HORNET (CV 8) was ordered on 30 March 1939. The design had incorporated basic requirements for aircraft carriers, as practicable, witin the limits of the existing Treaty. It was intended that carriers would be used for a number of roles and encounter a variety of threats, therefore, emphasis was placed on protection to enable them to remain operational as long as possible after damage. Te intent was to provide maximum protection against gunfire, bombing, torpedoes and mining, but it was recognized that a carrier of 20,000 tons could not be protected as well as the much heavier battleships.

All three ships of the class suffered heavy battle damage. The YORKTOWN and HORNET were lost and the ENTERPRISE was damaged several times. All three were able to remain operational as carriers after absorbing a considerable amount of damage far exceeding the expectations of their designers.

The WASP  (cv 7 ) (below) displaced only 14,700 tons.

The reversion to a smaller carrier was only to use the remaining Treaty tonnage. A mixture of the RANGER and YORKTOWN designs, she introduced an elementary version of the deck-edge elevator.

A return to the small carrier was a statutory requirement and she becam a mixture of the RANGER and YORKTOWN designs. The small size of the new carrier necessitated a machinery arrangement similar to that in the RANGER with only two shafts. Three elevators were planned but one was deleted because of Depression era economy measures. Instead, a small “T” shaped lift was fitted forward on the port sied. It supported the tail and landing gear of an aircraft while being raised from the hangar deck to the flight deck. This introduced the deck-edge elevator to U.S. carrier design.

Authorization to build the HORNET (CV 8) was provided in the Naval Expansion Act of 17 May 1938 which included 40,000 tons of new aircraft carrier construction.


Because of the urgency of the building program and the length of time required to complete a new design, the HORNET was ordered from Newport News on 30 March 1939 to a slightly improved YORKTOWN desigh. She was the last U.S. Navy carrier which used a design affected by Treaty limitations. 

Source: Warship’s Data – Pictorial Histories Publishing Company

…to be continued with The ESSEX (CV 9) Class


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