The explosive growth of aviation capabilities in the first two decades of the 20th Century was not lost on a subset of military fliers of the era. Around the world, aviators and strategists, perhaps younger than the leaders of their branches of service, embraced flight as a way to make a novel contribution to their nations’ military interests.
The U.S. Navy had advocates for multi-engine long-range patrol seaplanes, and another camp that believed the future belonged to ship-based fighters, scouts, and bombers.
Eugene Ely had shown the possibility of taking off and landing on a ship back in 1910 and 1911, with an open-air Curtiss Pusher on makeshift wooden planking on two different cruisers.
Kenneth Whiting is credited in a number of U.S. Navy sources for his hands-on stewardship of aircraft carriers in the immediate post-World War I period. Though not as well known as Army aviator Gen. Billy Mitchell, whose outspoken advocacy for airpower cost him his career in the 1920s, Whiting nonetheless had skin in the game, making the first catapult takeoff from an aircraft carrier.
The Navy had made earlier catapult launch tests from docks and barges, but Whiting’s launch from the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, on Nov. 18, 1922, signaled the beginning of practical aircraft carrier catapult operations.
Whiting had been one of the naval officers urging the service to explore dedicated aircraft carriers. A contemporary recalled Whiting made such a pitch as early as 1916. By 1919, the Navy was ready to embrace the concept.
With World War I over, the peacetime Navy took the 1913 coal ship, USS Jupiter, out of service to make its first aircraft carrier.
Jupiter’s tall lattice towers that supported coaling booms for replenishing warships at sea were stripped from the hull as an elevated flat deck was built atop the vessel. Recommissioned as USS Langley, and given the Navy’s first aircraft carrier number (CV-1), the former old collier did not have a future as a viable fleet aircraft carrier, but its introduction in 1922 told the Navy what it needed to know about the potential of aircraft carriers.
A postwar treaty between victorious powers sought to blunt a naval arms race by limiting construction of several types of warships, including large battle cruisers. But the unfinished American battle cruisers Lexington and Saratoga could have their hulls converted to become aircraft carriers, and stay within the scope of the treaty. And so were born America’s second and third aircraft carriers, converted starting in 1922 and commissioned in 1927.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), America’s aeronautical advice agent, said in 1920 that air-cooled radial engines promised superior power-to-weight ratios, as well as reliability over liquid-cooled powerplants. The following year, the U.S. Navy adopted air-cooled radials as the motors of choice for the aircraft that would be adapted or designed for use on aircraft carriers.
Charles Lawrance, with some Navy support, crafted his J-1 radial engine in 1922 that used aluminum cylinders lined with steel. The J-1 once ran for 300 hours, considered six times what other engines of the day could do.
Wright Aeronautical bought the Lawrance design, and in the 1920s, Wright and new rival Pratt and Whitney became the power brokers of air-cooled radial engines that broke the spell cast by cheap and plentiful war surplus liquid-cooled engines.
Navy fliers appreciated air-cooled reliability for lonely overwater sorties. Also, a lightweight air-cooled engine with no radiator and coolant system to service was easier to supply and maintain in the confines of a ship at sea.
So adamant was the Navy about using air-cooled engines on aircraft carriers that, years later, Lockheed proposed a navalized version of the P-38 Lightning fighter to the Navy to be powered by air-cooled radial engines in truncated cowlings instead of the long V-12 liquid-cooled Allisons that powered Army Air Forces P-38s.
While advances in liquid-cooled engine technology had merit for the Army over the next couple decades, the die was cast for the Navy’s use of air-cooled radials.
Kenneth Whiting, aviator and advocate, is credited with another seminal contribution to Naval aviation. Watching early landings on the Langley, pilot Whiting would stand at the stern of the flight deck to one side, where pilots could see him diagonally as they approached the ship. They said he gave visual cues with his body that helped their alignment for landing, and so was born the landing signal officer.
Whiting served as USS Langley’s first executive officer and first acting commander. After a stint at the shipyards overseeing the metamorphosis of the Saratoga into a combat-capable aircraft carrier, in November 1927 he became that ship’s first executive officer. In 1929 he departed Saratoga and was promoted to captain. Several assignments and schools later, he boarded USS Langley again in 1933 as its commanding officer. Whiting continued that decade working on development of the next carrier, CV-4 USS Ranger, followed by Yorktown and Enterprise. In the summer of 1934, he was named as commanding officer of USS Saratoga.
All of the aircraft carriers that Whiting touched were in some form of combat service in World War II, with crews who continued to sharpen the edge of Naval aviation tactics in the war. Capt. Kenneth Whiting died of a heart attack at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in April 1943 at age 61, still serving the Navy he loved.
The USS Langley, CV-1, served as an aircraft carrier into 1936, training crews and perfecting techniques. In 1937, with a truncated flight deck and other modifications, Langley became a seaplane tender. In February 1942, USS Langley was tasked with delivering Army Air Forces P-40s and crews to Java.
En route, on Feb. 27, Japanese bombers targeted Langley in several passes, bracketing and hitting the venerable carrier. Steering was damaged and fires started topside. The engine room flooded, and Langley went dead in the water. The order to abandon ship was given, and USS Langley, once the Navy’s first and only aircraft carrier, was scuttled by gunfire and torpedoes from friendly escorting destroyers to keep the ship from falling into Japanese possession.
CV-2, the USS Lexington, suffered fuel explosions during the Battle of Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. Once again, friendly fire scuttled the ravaged aircraft carrier to prevent its capture. It was understood by both sides in the Pacific war that American production capacity outstripped Japanese construction, and denying the Japanese the use of even damaged hulls, plus any equipment and technologies they may have carried, must have been seen as an important objective.
The third member of the Navy’s first trio of prewar aircraft carriers, USS Saratoga (CV-3), survived several torpedoes and a kamikaze attack in the course of the war. Sent home in 1944 for refit, Saratoga performed a training stint before returning to Pacific combat in 1945, where the kamikaze caused CV-3 to make another trip home for repairs and permanent conversion to training use.
With newer aircraft carriers in abundance at the end of World War II in 1945, the vintage Saratoga was earmarked for destruction in the Bikini atomic bomb tests of July 1946 in Operation Crossroads. Along with other American vessels and ships harvested from former combatants, Saratoga yielded information about atomic bomb lethality. The second Crossroads bomb sent Saratoga to the bottom.