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The following article on the first aircraft carrier 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.

The first shipboard aviator was a civilian named Eugene B. Ely, a native Iowan who came to aviation as an Oregon automobile salesman. Largely self-taught after crashing on his first flying attempt, Ely quickly gained a national reputation working for speed merchant Glen Curtiss, who held U.S. pilot license number one.


In October 1910 Ely became the seventeenth Aero Club member to gain a pilot’s license. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company was a bitter rival of the Wright brothers, who had mastered powered flight in 1903. But while the Wrights expended much of their effort in patent feuds, Curtiss pressed ahead with technical and—equally important— political matters.

Glenn Curtiss knew an opportunity when he saw one. Though Ely had only gained his license that month, Curtiss took him to meet with Chambers. Asked if they could take off from a platform rigged on a ship, the fliers reckoned that they could not only take off but land aboard as well.

Events accelerated. At Norfolk an eighty-three-foot-long wood platform was erected over the two-year-old cruiser, United States Ship Birmingham’s (CL-2) forward deck. The platform was sloped slightly downward to provide a speedier descent on the takeoff run. Although not considered by most naval historians to be the first aircraft carrier, the ship still featured a historic flight.

On November 14, 1910, the cruiser eased into Hampton Roads with two destroyers as contingency rescue ships. Ely, draped with inner tubes for flotation and sporting a football helmet, climbed into the exposed seat of his Curtiss Pusher. With the four-cylinder engine revving up, he advanced the throttle and began his downhill takeoff.

Ely got off in less than sixty feet and, running off the ramp, he pushed forward on his control wheel. He recovered so low that his wheels dragged in the water, creating a potent rooster-tail spray that cracked his propeller. After wiping saltwater off his goggles, he landed safely on the beach, considering the experiment a failure due to the prop damage. But officialdom disagreed: he received a hefty five hundred dollar reward (worth about $12,500 in 2016) from the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve.

On January 18, 1911, Ely took off from San Bruno and motored over San Francisco Bay. Forced to land downwind, the aviator dropped the pusher onto the improvised deck and bounced several feet, missing the first ten ropes. But Robinson’s hooks snagged several successive lines, dragging the flying machine to a halt. Officers and sailors waved their hats and cheered. Ely’s young wife, Mabel—who reputedly had spent the last three years waiting to see him killed— breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Less than an hour later, Ely again revved his plane, returning to shore. Ely’s daring flights paved the way for first aircraft carrier to be designed, particularly in the wake of the First World War.


Although World War I vessels launched aircraft from their decks, the first ship to have a full-length flat deck was Britain’s HMS Argus, which was converted in September 1918. The United States Navy lagged behind, converting the USS Langley in 1920. They engaged in an unofficial arms race to develop their own first aircraft carrier.

The U.S. Navy’s General Board had suggested an aircraft carrier construction program in 1918, but postwar progress was tentative. “Flying-off platforms” were constructed on some battleships, affording a means of launching spotter airplanes, which would land ashore. However, the wooden platforms on the USS Texas (BB-35) and other battlewagons clearly could not substitute for a genuine aircraft carrier flight deck.

In 1922, the world’s naval powers began allotting permitted combatant tonnage under the Washington Naval Treaty. The signatories agreed to a 5-5-3 ratio of tonnage among America, Britain, and Japan, with smaller quotas for France and Italy. In compliance with the treaty, the top three nations scrapped or halted construction on sixty-six major warships, limiting themselves to 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers for the United States and Britain, with eighty-one thousand for Japan. Because conversion of existing ships was permitted, America would gain her first fighting flattops. Two massive thirty-five thousand-ton, sixteen-inch battlecruisers about one-third complete were redesigned as USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3).

Commissioned in late 1927, the “Lady Lex” and “Sara” were matched only by Japan’s thirty-six thousand-ton Kaga—powerful ships capable of making 33 knots and embarking up to ninety aircraft. Over the next fourteen years, five more carriers joined the U.S. Fleet, including the fifteen thousand-ton Ranger (CV-4) in 1934, America’s first flattop built as such but limited in size by the Washington Naval Treaty. Most notable were the twenty thousand-ton sisters Yorktown Sisters Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6) under construction at Newport News, Virginia, early 1937. They were invaluable in the Pacific five years later.


A third carrier power was building during the decade following the Great War. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s experimental carrier Hosho (“Phoenix in Flight”) was their own first aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1922— the same year as Langley—and Japan forged ahead with two fleet carriers.

The Imperial Navy had a long-established relationship with the Royal Navy, even displaying a lock of the famed British naval commander Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s hair at the Eta Jima Naval Academy. Japan’s twenty-seven thousand-ton Kongo-class battleships were designed by British naval architects, and Kongo herself was built in Britain. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Japanese Navy relied heavily upon its English friends for guidance in the emerging art of carrier aircraft.

Only displacing 7,500 tons, Hosho nonetheless provided a platform for learning the carrier trade. But the Japanese proceeded slowly and methodically. In early 1923 Hosho’s first takeoffs and landings were performed by former RNAS officer William Jordan, contracted to Mitsubishi. Lieutenant Shunichi Kira logged the first landing by an Imperial Navy aviator in March of that year, flying a type 1MF fighter from the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Manufacturing Company.

Japan’s first carrier was the purpose-built Hosho (“Phoenix in Flight”), commissioned in 1922, the same year as USS Langley. The starboard island was removed two years later, and the slanted portion of the flight deck was straightened. Courtesy Tailhook Association.

Hosho’s early air group included nine 1MF fighters and six B1M3 torpedo planes. In 1937 the new all-metal Mitsubishi A5M fighter and Yokosuka B4Y bombers dominated, with the A5M (later “Claude” to the Allies) marking the transition to monoplanes.


This article on the first aircraft carrier 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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