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The flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier.

Naval aviation is the application of military air power by navies, whether from warships that embark aircraft, or land-based maritime patrol aircraft. In contrast, maritime aviation is the operation of aircraft in a maritime role under the command of non-naval forces such as an air force (e.g., the former RAF Coastal Command) or coast guard. An exception to this is the United States Coast Guard, which is considered part of U.S. naval aviation. In addition, in that the United States Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy, that service's aircraft and aviation personnel are also considered part of U.S. naval aviation whether based afloat or ashore.

Naval aviation is typically projected to a position nearer the target by way of an aircraft carrier. Carrier aircraft must be sturdy enough to withstand demanding carrier operations. They must be able to launch in a short distance and be sturdy and flexible enough to come to a sudden stop on a pitching deck; they typically have robust folding mechanisms that allow higher numbers of them to be stored in below-decks hangars. These aircraft are designed for many purposes including air-to-air combat, surface attack, submarine attack, search and rescue, materiel transport, weather observation, reconnaissance and wide area command and control duties.


Eugene Ely taking off from the USS Birmingham in November 1910

Sqn. Cdr. E. H. Dunning makes the first landing of an aircraft on a moving ship, a Sopwith Pup on HMS Furious, August 2, 1917.

In the United States, "Naval Aviation" is defined as all aviation activities of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate that airplanes could take off from and land aboard ships at sea. One of his pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from a temporary deck aboard the cruiser USS Birmingham, anchored off the Virginia coast in November 1910. In another test run two months later Ely managed to land aboard another cruiser USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, proving the concept of shipboard operations. However, the platforms erected on those vessels were temporary measures. The U.S. Navy and Glenn Curtis experienced two firsts during January 1911. On January 27, Curtiss flew the first seaplane from the water at San Diego bay and the next day U.S. Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson, a student at the nearby Curtiss School, took off in a Curtiss “grass cutter” plane to become the first Naval aviator. Meanwhile, Captain Henry C. Mustin successfully designed the concept of the catapult launch, and in 1915 made the first catapult launching from a ship underway. Through most of World War I, the world's navies relied upon floatplanes and flying boats for heavier-than-air craft.

In January 1912, the British battleship HMS Africa took part in aircraft experiments at Sheerness. She was fitted for flying off aircraft with a 100-foot (30 m) downward-sloping runway which was installed on her foredeck, running over her forward 12-inch (305-mm) turret from her forebridge to her bows and equipped with rails to guide the aircraft. The Gnome-engined Short Improved S.27 "S.38", pusher seaplane piloted by Lieutenant Charles Samson become the first British aircraft to take-off from a ship while at anchor in the River Medway, on 10 January 1912. Africa then transferred her flight equipment to her sister ship Hibernia. In May 1912, with Commander Samson, again flying "S.38," first instance of an aircraft to take off from a ship which was underway occurred. Hibernia steamed at 10.5 knots (19 km/h) at the Royal Fleet Review in Weymouth Bay, England. Hibernia then transferred her aviation equipment to battleship London. Based on these experiments, the Royal Navy concluded that aircraft were useful aboard ship for spotting and other purposes, but that interference with the firing of guns caused by the runway built over the foredeck and the danger and impracticality of recovering seaplanes that alighted in the water in anything but calm weather more than offset the desirability of having airplanes aboard. However, shipboard naval aviation had begun in the Royal Navy, and would become a major part of fleet operations by 1917.

Other early operators of seaplanes were France, Germany and Russia. On January 24, 1913 came the first wartime naval aviation interservice cooperation mission. Greek pilots on a seaplane observed and drew a diagram of the positions of the Turkish fleet against which they dropped four bombs. This event was widely commented upon in the press, both Greek and international.[1]

World War I and the first carrier strikes

The first strike from a carrier against a land target as well as a sea target took place in September 1914 when the Imperial Japanese Navy seaplane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world's first ship-launched air raids[2] from Kiaochow Bay during the Battle of Tsingtao in China.[3] The four Maurice Farman seaplanes bombarded German-held land targets (communication centers and command centers) and damaged a German minelayer in the Tsingtao peninsula from September until November 6, 1914, when the Germans surrendered.[4]

On the Western front the first naval air raid occurred on December 25, 1914 when twelve seaplanes from HMS Engadine, Riviera and Empress (cross-channel steamers converted into seaplane carriers ) attacked the Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven. Fog, low cloud and anti-aircraft fire prevented the raid from being a complete success, but the raid demonstrated the feasibility of attack by ship-borne aircraft and showed the strategic importance of this new weapon.

Development in the Interwar period

Genuine aircraft carriers did not emerge beyond Britain until the early 1920s.[5]

In the United States, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell's 1921 demonstration of the battleship-sinking ability of land-based heavy bombers made many United States Navy admirals angry. However, some men, such as Captain (soon Rear Admiral) William A. Moffett, saw the publicity stunt as a means to increase funding and support for the Navy's aircraft carrier projects. Moffett was sure that he had to move decisively in order to avoid having his fleet air arm fall into the hands of a proposed combined Land/Sea Air Force which took care of all the United States's airpower needs. (That very fate had befallen the two air services of the United Kingdom in 1918: the Royal Flying Corps had been combined with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force, a condition which would remain until 1937.) Moffett supervised the development of naval air tactics throughout the '20s.

Many British naval vessels carried float planes, seaplanes or amphibians for reconnaissance and spotting: two to four on battleships or battlecruisers and one on cruisers. The aircraft, a Fairey Seafox or later a Supermarine Walrus, were catapult-launched, and landed on the sea alongside for recovery by crane. Several submarine aircraft carriers were built by Japan. The French Navy built one large (but ineffective) aircraft carrying submarine, the Surcouf.

World War II

A Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighter

Douglas Dauntless SBD dive-bomber in Battle of Midway.

World War II saw the emergence of naval aviation as a significant, often decisive, element in the war at sea. The principal users were Japan, United States (both with Pacific interests to protect) and Britain. Germany, the Soviet Union, France and Italy had a lesser involvement. Soviet Naval Aviation was mostly organized as land-based coast defense force (apart from some scout floatplanes it consisted almost exclusively of land-based types also used by its air arms.

During the course of the war, seaborne aircraft were used in fleet actions at sea (Battle of Midway, Bismarck), strikes against naval units in port (Battle of Taranto, Attack on Pearl Harbor), support of ground forces (Battle of Okinawa, Allied invasion of Italy) and anti-submarine warfare (the Battle of the Atlantic). Carrier-based aircraft were specialized as dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters. Surface-based aircraft such as the PBY Catalina helped finding submarines and surface fleets.

In WWII the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the most powerful naval offensive weapons system as battles between fleets were increasingly fought out of gun range by aircraft. The Japanese Yamato, the most powerful battleship ever built, was first turned back by light escort carrier aircraft and later sunk lacking its own air cover.

In the Doolittle Raid of 1942, the US Navy launched Air Force medium bombers on one-way missions to bomb Tokyo. Only a few got through and the experiment was not repeated. Smaller carriers were built in large numbers to escort slow cargo convoys or supplement fast carriers. Aircraft for observation or light raids were also carried by battleships and cruisers, while blimps were used to search for attack submarines.

Experience showed that there was a need for widespread use of aircraft which could not be met quickly enough by building new fleet aircraft carriers. This was particularly true in the north Atlantic, where convoys were highly vulnerable to U-boat attack. The British authorities used unorthodox, temporary, but effective means of giving air protection such as CAM ships and merchant aircraft carriers, merchant ships modified to carry a small number of aircraft. The solution to the problem were large numbers of mass-produced merchant hulls converted into escort aircraft carriers (also known as "jeep carriers"). These basic vessels, unsuited to fleet action by their capacity, speed and vulnerability, nevertheless provided air cover where it was needed.

The Royal Navy had observed the impact of naval aviation and, obliged to prioritise their use of resources, abandoned battleships as the mainstay of the fleet. HMS Vanguard was therefore the last British battleship and her sisters were cancelled. The United States had already instigated a large construction programme (which was also cut short) but these large ships were mainly used as anti-aircraft batteries or for shore bombardment.

Other actions involving naval aviation included:


Strategic projection

Carrier-based naval aviation provides a country's seagoing forces with air cover over areas that may not be reachable by land-based aircraft, giving them a considerable advantage over navies composed primarily of surface combatants.

In the case of the United States Navy during and after the Cold War, virtual command of the sea in many of the world's waterways allowed it to deploy aircraft carriers and project air power almost anywhere on the globe. By operating from international waters, U.S. carriers can bypass the need for conventional airbases or overflight rights, both of which can be politically difficult to acquire.


A Lynx anti-submarine helicopter preparing to land on a French frigate during 1988

During the Cold War, the navies of NATO faced a significant threat from Soviet submarine forces, specifically Soviet Navy SSN and SSGN assets. This resulted in the development and deployment of light aircraft carriers with major anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities by European NATO navies. One of the most effective weapons against submarines is the ASW helicopter, several of which could be based on these light aircraft carriers. These light carriers are typically around 20,000 tons displacement and carry a mix of ASW helicopters and BAe Sea Harrier or Harrier II V/STOL aircraft. Land-based maritime patrol aircraft are useful since they can operate independently of aircraft carriers.

Naval aviation branches

Since 1975 the Royal Canadian Navy's naval aviation arm is operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

See also


  1. Hellenic Air Force History - Balkan Wars
  2. Wakamiya is "credited with conducting the first successful carrier air raid in history", also "the first air raid in history to result in a success" (here)
  3. "Sabre et pinceau", Christian Polak, p92
  4. IJN Wakamiya Aircraft Carrier
  5. [1]
  6. Boyne (2003), pp.227–8

Further reading

  • Grosnick, Roy A. United States Naval Aviation 1910 - 1995 (4th ed. 1997) partly online
  • Ireland, Bernard. The History of Aircraft Carriers: An authoritative guide to 100 years of aircraft carrier development (2008)
  • Polmar, Norman. Aircraft carriers;: A graphic history of carrier aviation and its influence on world events (1969)
    • Polmar, Norman. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (2nd ed. 2 vol 2006)
  • Polmar, Norman, ed. Historic Naval Aircraft: The Best of "Naval History" Magazine (2004)
  • Trimble, William F. Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation (2010)

World War II

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