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The following article on naval aviation is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’s book On Wave and Wing: The 100 Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Naval aviation—launching aircraft from sea vessels as opposed to land-based aviation—is a cornerstone of American global military power. But in its infancy it was seen as a secondary or tertiary asset.


In time of trouble—real, perceived, or anticipated—U.S. presidents often ask “where are the carriers?” It is no surprise, since an aircraft carrier’s flight deck typically delivers four and one-half acres of American sovereignty to the world’s oceans, accessible to every continent.

But the aircraft carrier is not an American invention. Its origin dates from Great Britain in 1917, when the battlecruiser HMS Furious was rigged with a flight deck to accommodate aircraft during the Great War. In the century since, the carrier has played an increasingly historic role on the world stage. From the first tentative, pioneering efforts during World War I, the fighting flattop emerged fully grown barely two decades later, displacing the battleship atop the pyramid of naval power. Today the carrier retains that pride of place. Yet aircraft carriers are so technically complex, so extremely costly, and so difficult to operate that only three nations have produced them in quantity: Britain, America, and Japan. France trails a distant fourth, while other fleets currently operate single flattops.

Components of naval aviation

However, carrier aviation—the height of naval aviation— is far, far more than ships, airplanes, and technology. It is a distinct culture, equal parts cult and guild, melding man and machinery. The blend of the human element with technology has produced worldwide, historic results. Few other endeavors so thoroughly entwine the various technical and human components into a synergistic whole. Human beings are the core of carrier aviation, the fiber binding together wave and wing. Carriers would not exist except for the visionaries, the innovators, the leaders, the risk-takers, the true believers. Together, they have had a disproportionate effect upon global events in the past century. Carriers— though thin-skinned, vulnerable ships stuffed with volatile fuel and ordnance—were instrumental not only in the rise and fall of navies, but of great nations and even empires. During the Second World War, carriers were vital to Allied victory in the Atlantic and Pacific. But victory at sea was only a brief blip on history’s radar trace, as carrier aviation expanded its influence ashore in Korea, Vietnam, the Mediterranean, and beyond.

Carrier advocates and naval aviation advocates in general fought long and hard for their passion, both afloat and ashore. In the 1920s the first generation of carrier aviators paid their tuition in blood, learning the esoteric trade on the narrow wooden decks of ships often hastily modified for the purpose. Landing flimsy biplanes on moving platforms that pitched and rolled through oceanic swells called for equal parts courage and skill. Some with ample courage lacked the skill—or the luck—to survive. Yet the pioneer tailhookers believed in the future, and they helped reshape the world’s naval structure.

Within four months in 1945 the U.S. Navy helped Britain defeat Nazi Germany’s navy (the Kriegsmarine) and almost unaided smashed the Imperial Japanese Navy (Nihon Kaigun). But in the late 1940s flying admirals and their subordinates had to conduct a years-long battle in Washington, D.C., and in the nation’s media to keep what the previous generation had gained. The nation—and the free world—owed them a debt.

The huge majority of fliers and sailors who make carriers function will forever remain anonymous to their countrymen. Only a few stellar figures cross the national firmaments: Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was the jut-jawed seadog who led the task force that launched the 1942 Doolittle Raid against Tokyo, when America’s morale needed a boost as never before. Three years later, a fleet commander, he witnessed Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay.

Japan’s foremost admiral, Isoruku Yamamoto, helped build the Imperial Navy’s carrier fleet in the 1930s, and in 1941 sent it to Hawaiian waters with stunning consequences. But unlike his U.S. counterpart, Yamamoto perished in the war he initiated.

No comparable figurehead ever caught the public fancy in Britain, despite the Royal Navy’s importance in carrier evolution.

Even today the men who actually delivered sea power to their nations largely have come and gone unrecognized. They labored in the bake-oven heat of engineering spaces, providing essential power and propulsion. They sweated on hangar decks, often assuming near-impossible positions while leaning into airframes and engines with screwdrivers or socket wrenches. They strained on “hernia bars” loading bombs on attack aircraft and ammunition into fighters. They dragged heavy hoses to thirsty aircraft, filling fuel tanks for the next launch. They briefed in squadron ready rooms—partly college dormitory hung with flight gear and posters, partly tribal enclave, each with its own esoteric nature. They huddled on the flag bridge where admirals and their staffs pondered the latest intelligence, knowing that it was inevitably incomplete and often inaccurate. All played their essential parts, melding the many into the whole—a potent warship ready to launch violence over the far horizon in service of the state.

Naval aviation also produced the first generation of spacemen. The aviators who rode catapults off carrier decks launched into celestial voyages even to the moon. Approximately half of NASA astronauts wore wings of gold, including the first American in space and the first to orbit earth. Of the twelve men who walked on the moon, seven were naval aviators, including the first and the last.

Today, a century downrange from HMS Furious, there is little doubt that carriers will remain the pre-eminent combatants in the world’s oceans and a cornerstone of naval aviation. The fact that naval warfare no longer exists has not diminished the urgency with which navies and nations acquire ship-based naval aviation.

If there will never be another Midway or Leyte Gulf, there surely will be other Koreas, Vietnams, Libyas, and Iraqs. Thus, the carrier’s unique ability to project power ashore will ensure its continued use, “ready on arrival,” and the centerpiece of naval aviation.

This article on naval aviation is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’s book On Wave and Wing: The 100 Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

You can also buy the book by clicking on the buttons to the left.

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