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Although airplanes took off and landed on ships before the start of World War I, the United States Navy did not acquire its first aircraft carrier until after the war, and did not have a purpose-built carrier in commission until 1934. Despite the late start, the aircraft carrier came to be the dominant surface vessel in World War II, in which it took over most of the offensive functions formerly assigned to battleships. Following that war, carriers retained their importance. In the US Navy, now the world's preeminent maritime power, one or more aircraft carriers form the nucleus of each fleet.

On November 14, 1910, pilot Eugene Burton Ely took off in a Curtiss plane from the bow of and later landed a Curtiss Model D on on 18 January 1911. In fiscal year (FY) 1920, Congress approved a conversion of collier into a ship designed for launching and recovering of airplanes at sea—the first aircraft carrier of the United States Navy. More aircraft carriers were approved and built, including the , the first class of aircraft carriers in the United States Navy designed and built as aircraft carriers from the keel.

The United Statesmarker declared war on Japanmarker following the attack of 7 December 1941 on Pearl Harbormarker. The two nations revolutionized naval warfare in the course of the next four years; several of the most important sea battles were fought without either fleet coming within sight of the other. Most of the fleet carriers were built according to prewar designs, but the demand for air protection was so intense that two new classes were developed: light carriers (designated CVL), built on modified cruiser hulls, and escort carriers (CVE), whose main function was to protect Atlantic convoys from German U-boats.

During the postwar period, carrier technology made many advances. The angled flight deck, first used by the Royal Navy, was adopted in 1953. The first "supercarrier" was commissioned in 1955 (although an earlier plan had been canceled by the Secretary of Defense), and the first nuclear-powered carrier in 1961, all during the Cold War. Also, a record for crossing the Pacific Oceanmarker was set by a U.S. Navy carrier during the Korean War. Carriers recovered spacecraft after splashdown, including the Mercury-Redstone 3 and Apollo 11 missions.

A new class, the , is planned for 2015. In 2007, the last conventionally powered (non-nuclear) carrier was decommissioned.

Pre-World War II

On November 14, 1910, a 24 year old civilian pilot, Eugene Burton Ely, took off in a 50 horsepower Curtiss plane from a wooden platform built over the bow of the cruiser ; later, on January 18, 1911, Ely landed a Curtiss Model D on a platform aboard . The Naval Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1920 provided funds for the conversion of into a ship designed for the launching and recovery of airplanes at sea—the United States Navy's first aircraft carrier. Renamed , she was commissioned in 1922. Commander Kenneth Whiting was placed in command. In 1924, Langley reported for duty with the Battle Fleet, ending two years as an experimental ship.

In 1922, Congress also authorized the conversion of the unfinished battlecruisers and the as permitted under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, signed in February 1922. The keel of , the first ship designed and constructed as an aircraft carrier, was laid down in 1931, and the ship was commissioned in 1934.

Following Ranger and before the entry of the United States into World War II, four more carriers were commissioned. was essentially an improved version of Ranger. The others were the three ships of the class.
Designation Class Ships Active Description Lead Ship
1922 – 1936 Converted from . Experimental ship, served 1925-36 as an aircraft carrier before being converted to a seaplane tender and given the new hull symbol AV-3.
CV-2 Lexington
1927 – 1946 The ships were laid down and partly built as part of a six-member battlecruiser class before being converted to carriers while under construction.
1934 – 1946 First purpose-built US Navy aircraft carrier.
CV-5 Yorktown
1937 – 1947 Hornet was built after Wasp. By the end of September 1942, both Yorktown and Hornet were on the bottom of the Pacific; , the orphaned sister of the class, became a symbol of the Pacific War.
1940 – 1942 Modified Yorktown class, built on 3,000 less tons to use up allotted tonnage under the Washington Naval Treaty.

World War II

The Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbormarker on 7 December 1941, but none of the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers were in the harbor. Because a large fraction of the Navy's battleship fleet was put out of commission by the attack, the undamaged aircraft carriers were forced to become the load-bearers of the early part of the war. The first aircraft carrier offensive of the U.S. Navy came on 1 February 1942, when the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, attacked the Japanese bases in the Marshallmarker and Gilbert Islands. The Battle of the Coral Sea became the first sea battle in history in which neither opposing fleet saw the other. The Battle of Midwaymarker started as a Japanese offensive on Midway Atollmarker met by an outnumbered U.S. carrier force, and resulted in a U.S. victory. The Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War.

In 1943, new designations for carriers were established, limiting the CV designation to the , the , and the Essex class. The new designations were CVB (Aircraft carrier, large) for the carriers being built, and CVL (Aircraft carriers, small) for the class built on light cruiser hulls. The same directive reclassified escort carriers as combatant ships, and changed their symbol from ACV to CVE.

On September 2, 1945, Japan signed the surrender agreement abroad the , ending World War II.
Designation Class Ships Active Description Lead Ship
CV-9 Essex
1942 – 1991 This class constituted the Twentieth Century's largest class of heavy warships, with 24 ships built. 32 ships were originally ordered, but some were cancelled. (13 ships of the CV-14 Ticonderoga class are considered either a separate class or a "Long hull" group of the Essex class; and another shipmarker is considered a one class ship, depending on source).
CVL-22 Independence
1943 – 1970 This class was a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's interest in Navy shipbuilding plans. In August 1941, with war looming, he noted that no new fleet aircraft carriers were expected before 1944 and proposed to quickly convert some of the many cruisers then building.

Cold War

Aircraft carrier technology underwent many changes during the Cold War. The first of the 45000 ton carriers, the was commissioned eight days after the end of World War II, on September 10. A larger ship was planned, and in 1948, President Harry Truman approved the construction of a "supercarrier", a 65000 ton aircraft carrier to be named ; however, the project was canceled in April 1949 by the Secretary of Defense. The Navy's first supercarriers came later, in 1955, with the Forrestal class. 1953 saw the first test of an angled-deck carrier, the .

The "N" suffix was added to the designation system to represent nuclear powered carriers in 1956. The first carrier to receive this suffix was the , commissioned in 1961. The last carrier to be conventionally powered, the , was commissioned in 1968, and was decommissioned in 2007.

The Korean War began June 25, 1950, and the need for planes and troops was urgent. Returning from Korea, the made a record trip across the Pacificmarker—7 days, 10 hours, and 36 minutes. In 1952, all carriers with designations "CV" or "CVB" were reclassified as attack carriers and given the sign "CVA". An armistice to cease fighting was signed in 1953, and, de jure, the Korean War is still ongoing.

As the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission ended, the recovered Commander Alan B. Shepard, the first American in space, on May 5, 1961. Another aircraft carrier, the , recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts after their splashdown. Apollo 11 was the first manned landing on the moon, and was composed of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

In 1975, the first Nimitz class aircraft carrier was commissioned; the Nimitz class are the largest ships in the world; and is the only aircraft carrier class in commission with the U.S. Navy, except for the . Construction and commissioning of the Nimitz class continued after the Cold War.

Also, in 1975, the U.S. Navy simplified the carrier designations—CV, CVA, CVAN, CVB, CVL—into CV for conventionally powered carriers and CVN for nuclear-powered carriers.
Designation Class Ships Active Description Lead Ship
CV-41 Midway
1945 – 1992 This class was one of the longest lived carrier designs in history. First commissioned in late 1945, the lead ship of the class, was not decommissioned until 1992, shortly after seeing service in the Gulf War. Six were planned; 3 were built including the Coral Sea (CV-43) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42). The class was originally designated CVB.
CVL-48 Saipan
1946 – 1970 Built on modified Baltimore class cruiser hulls. Both were converted to command-and-control ships in the mid-1950s: to Arlington, to CC-2.
1 keel
None commissioned This class was never commissioned (3 more were planned). See Revolt of the Admirals for details.
CV-59 Forrestal
1955 – 1998 The Forrestal class was the first class of "supercarriers" of the Navy, so called because of their then-extraordinarily high tonnage (75,000 tons, 25% larger than the Midway class), and full integration of the angled deck.
CV-63 Kitty Hawk
1961 – 2009 Sometimes called "Improved Forrestal class". Sometimes mistaken as a four-ship class, with (see below) as a member. The biggest differences from the Forrestals are greater length, and a different placement of elevators; two are forward of the island, with a third at the portside stern.
1961 – Present First nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, using eight A2W reactors. Enlarged, modified, and nuclear-powered Kitty Hawk-class design.
1968 – 2007 Last conventionally powered aircraft carrier built (as of 2009). Sometimes grouped as a Kitty Hawk class ship. Laid down as a nuclear ship to use four A3W reactors, converted to conventional propulsion early in construction.
CVN-68 Nimitz
1975 – Present A line of nuclear-powered supercarriers in service with the US Navy using two A4W reactors, and the largest capital ships in the world. The Nimitz class are numbered with consecutive hull numbers starting with CVN 68. Ten ships are in the class .

After the Cold War

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the U.S. Navy had conventionally powered carriers from the classes Midway, Forrestal, and Kitty Hawk active, along with the ; and the nuclear carriers Nimitz class and the ; however, all of the conventional carriers have been decommissioned. Construction of the Nimitz class continued after the Cold War, and the last Nimitz class carrier was commissioned in 2009.

The next class of supercarriers—the Gerald R. Ford class—is planned to launch the first shipmarker in 2015. The new carriers will be stealthier, and feature A1B reactors, electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear, reduced crew requirements, and a hull design based upon that of the Nimitz class. Ten carriers are planned for the Gerald R. Ford class.
Designation Class Ships Active Description Lead Ship
CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford
10 planned
(2015 planned) The next generation supercarrier for the United States Navy. Carriers of the Ford class will incorporate many new design features including a new nuclear reactor design, stealthier features to help reduce radar profile, electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear, and reduced crewing requirements. The Ford class uses the basic hull design of the preceding Nimitz-class. Ten ships are currently planned for the Gerald R. Ford class.

Escort Carriers

During World War II, the U.S. Navy built escort carriers in large numbers for patrol work, and scouting and escorting convoys. Escort carriers were smaller than aircraft carriers; escort carrier crews referred to the ships as "Jeep carriers", the press called them "baby flat tops". The escort carriers had lighter armor than aircraft carriers, were slower, had less defensive armament, and fewer aircraft. This smaller variant of carriers was designated "CVE"; a common joke amongst crews was "CVE" meant "Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable".

Early in the war, German submarines and aircraft were interfering with shipping. The worst losses occurred far at sea—out of the reach of land-based air forces—leading the Royal Navy to experiment with catapult-launching fighter aircraft from merchant ships, a somewhat successful approach. However, the number of planes was still limited, so the United Kingdommarker appealed to the United Statesmarker for help.

Before World War II started, the U.S. Navy had contemplated converting merchant ships to small aircraft carriers for this purpose, so the quick solution was to build escort carriers on merchant ship hulls. The first escort carrier, the , was converted from a freighter. A shortage of merchant ship hulls caused four escort carriers— , , , and —to be built on oil tanker hulls. In total, 78 escort carriers were built and launched from June 1941 to April 1945.
Designation Class Ships Description Lead Ship
CVE-1 Long Island 2 1 in USN service (USS Long Island), and .
CVE-9 Bogue 45 11 in Royal Navy service, rest in U.S. Navy. British service as HMS Attacker class (first batch) and HMS Ameer class (second batch).
CVE-26 Sangamon 4 All in USN service. Built on oil tanker hulls rather than merchant ship hulls.
CVE-30 Charger 4 1 ( ) mainly in USN service, 3 in British service as Avenger class.
CVE-55 Casablanca 50 All in USN service.
CVE-105 Commencement Bay 19 All in USN service. Includes two units which were accepted but not commissioned and laid up for many years after the war.

See also


  1. The first fleet carrier to follow the Essex class, USS Midway, was not commissioned in time to participate in the war.

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