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100 Years Of U.S. Aircraft Carriers
by Michael D Brayshaw, Norfolk Naval Shipyard
March 20, 2022

March 20, 2022 marks 100 years of United States Navy aircraft carriers in active service ... a history which began at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY).

NNSY converted the first aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1), commissioned March 20, 1922, from the collier USS Jupiter (AC-3) beginning in early 1920. The collier, responsible for transporting fuel to coal-burning ships, was selected as the best platform for conversion as its cargo spaces could stow aircraft with ample room for a combined hangar and repair plant. Jupiter, built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard and launched in 1912, already had an impressive history in its own right for being the Navy's first turbo-electric ship and first vessel to transit the Panama Canal.

USS Langley underway on the Elizabeth River at Builders Trials, circa 1922. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard courtesy)
USS Langley underway on the Elizabeth River at Builders Trials, circa 1922. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard courtesy)

In addition to a flight deck, NNSY installed an armory, machine shop, and photographic and erological labs onboard. An electric elevator moved aviation components while electric cranes moved aircraft topside. Despite the conversion, some unique features could be traced back to the ship's origins.

Langley was nicknamed the “covered wagon” given its unique look with the assembled deck resembling a canopy. The Navy's first carrier also had the navigating bridge below the flight deck. Originally, a pigeon house was onboard so aviators could use the birds in delivering emergency communications, a lighter solution to bulky wireless radio sets at the time. This space was later converted into quarters for Langley's commanding officer.

Too slow for battle, retrofitted for its new mission and undersized compared to future carriers, Langley nonetheless met its aim as a floating laboratory for testing seaborne aviation. With naval aviators eager to try out the prototype, many of them got their chance in fall 1922.

The first launching took place Oct. 17, by Lt. Virgil C. Griffin in a VE-7 “Bluebird” adopted from the U.S. Army to become the Navy's fighter aircraft of choice. Nine days later, Lt. Cmdr. Godfrey Chevalier touched down on Langley in an Aeromarine while the carrier was underway. The ship's own Commanding Officer, and a major advocate for carrier development during World War I, Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting became the first naval aviator catapulted from a carrier deck, on Nov. 18.

Following all these achievements in aviation, Langley spent its next two years in a battery of trainings, tests and public demonstrations as the Navy's sole carrier.

Joining the Pacific Battle Fleet in late 1924, Langley patrolled the world's largest ocean for the next 12 years. By 1936, Langley was becoming obsolete in the shadow of three newer carriers, and converted into a seaplane tender.

USS Langley in Dry Dock 4, early October 1924. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard courtesy)
USS Langley in Dry Dock 4, early October 1924. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard courtesy)

During World War II, Langley assisted Royal Australian Air Force with anti-submarine patrols and was assigned to American-British-Dutch-Australian forces challenging Japanese offensives.

While carrying 32 P40 fighters to Java Feb. 27, 1942, the ship was attacked by several Japanese enemy bombers making five hits, rendering the historic ship inoperable and forcing it to be torpedoed by escorting destroyers to ensure Langley would not fall into enemy hands.

Following Langley's destruction, NNSY had significant carrier contributions to provide during World War II. The shipyard constructed three Essex-class carriers from the keel up—most famously the USS Shangri-La (CV-38) which helped end the war in Japan, and USS Lake Champlain (CV-39) which set speed records transporting servicemen home.

In the decades since, NNSY has proudly served the Navy and Nation in the depot-level maintenance of Atlantic Fleet carriers, and is home to the only federally owned carrier dry dock on the East Coast. Currently NNSY is overhauling USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), in the midst of a Planned Incremental Availability.

“On March 20 we observe the centennial of aircraft carriers serving and strengthening our Nation and are proud knowing it was Norfolk Naval Shipyard that converted the Navy's very first aircraft carrier, USS Langley," said Shipyard Commander Captain Dianna Wolfson. “Now, we are forward-focused bringing process improvement to our carrier work through initiatives such as Naval Sustainment System ... Shipyards (NSS-SY), and leveraging upgraded facilities through the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) to accommodate the Gerald R. Ford-class carrier and meeting all the demands of the 21st century Fleet. I'm confident knowing it's the people in America's Shipyard today who are at the forefront of strengthening the Navy's carriers for their next century of service.”

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Note: Minor editing without impacting facts.

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