This day in 1922 was a very important day in the records of Naval Aviation. Eighty-nine years ago, the United States Navy launched their first aircraft carrier.
The USS Langley, also known as CV-1, first served as a collier in the Navy. Naval engineers essentially placed a roof over the bulk supply ship to create a “flight deck” over the original deck of the USS Jupiter, AC-3.
Originally, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California laid down Jupiter’s keel in October 1911. The shipyard first launched the ship on August 14, 1912. Commander Joseph Reeves served as her first commanding officer. She would go on to serve in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as well as the Gulf of Mexico.
Later, Navy officials ordered the ship to Navy Yard Norfolk for conversion into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. The purpose of the conversion was to “experiment” with the new idea of “seaborne aviation.” On April 11, 1920, the Navy officially changed the ship’s name to the USS Langley in honor of one of America’s early pioneers of aviation, Samuel P. Langley. They newly commissioned her again on this date as the USS Langley, CV-1. Her new commanding officer, the first commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, was Commander Kenneth Whiting.
The first aircraft launched from the deck of the Langley was a Vought VE-7 piloted by LT Virgil Griffin on October 17, 1922. Griffin was not the first pilot to take off from a ship; that honor belongs to Eugene Ely, after Ely took off from the converted foredeck of the USS Birmingham on November 14, 1911.
The Birmingham was not an aircraft carrier, rather, she was a light cruiser. The Langley, on the other hand, was the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. Even though 11 years passed between the events of the first shipboard take off, to the first take off from an aircraft carrier, there was now little doubt the Navy could now lay claim to Naval Aviation. This was an important event.
While the nation and military leadership could now consider Naval Aviation under weigh with the launching of the Langley, many still considered the concept of flying airplanes from the decks of aircraft carriers as only an experiment. The process of developing practical application of air power at sea would face decades of trials and tribulations at the cost of much in terms of lives and injury.
No matter how difficult, no matter how dangerous, Navy pilots flying converted land-based aircraft pursued the idea of seaborne aerial warfare. They learned a lot, they took their lumps, they made mistakes, they fixed the mistakes, and they developed Naval Aviation into what it is today.
While flying from ships remains a dangerous business, it is no longer nearly as dangerous as in the years before World War II.
© 2011 J. Clark