11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers

We take a look at how aircraft carriers became the huge war machines that they are today.
Chris Young
1, 2

The aircraft carrier today is a huge war machine used by navies to deploy entire fleets of aircraft remotely, far away from their country of origin.

The biggest aircraft carrier today can transport and launch more than 75 aircraft by sea. But did you know about the aircraft carrier's humble predecessor, the balloon barge?

What we've grown accustomed to seeing today in the news, in movies, and in real life is the result of an evolution that's taken place over more than a hundred years thanks to some extremely talented engineers.

Here are some of the biggest steps in the evolution of the aircraft carrier, or supercarrier, as we know it today.

1. 19th century Balloon Carriers

The aircraft carrier's precursor, the humble balloon barge, was typically utilized in order to anchor hot air balloons so as to get the best view of a surrounding area. 

Balloon carriers were typically floating bargers that used a tether to stay attached to a balloon.

A tug boat would take the barge and the balloon downriver.

They date back to the 19th century and were soon superseded by the seaplane carriers that came in WWI.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
The Union Army balloon, Washington, anchored to the George Washington Parke Custis, Source: U.S. Navy History Website/Wikimedia Commons

Despite being used mainly to see the lay of the land, the Austrian navy did attempt to use hot air balloons to drop bombs on Venice in 1849.

During the American Civil War, the United States used balloons to observe the Confederate forces.

A group of prominent aeronauts of the time served as part of the Union Army balloon corps at the time.

2. La Foudre, the first seaplane carrier

The French ship La Foudre was the first seaplane carrier in history. Unlike aircraft carriers of today, rather than having a runway on top of the ship, it simply stored aircraft in its hull and used cranes to lower them onto the sea so they could take off and land from the water.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
A Caudron seaplane being craned onto La Foudre in 1914, Source: World Imaging/Wikimedia Commons

La Foudre was commissioned in 1896 but was then modified to be a seaplane carrier in 1911, shortly after the invention of the seaplane in 1910.

The first plane La Foudre carried was the float-equipped Canard Voisin seaplane, which was predominantly used for reconnaissance missions and observation. 

3. Eugene Ely makes the first carrier landing on USS Pensylvania 

Eugene Burton Ely is widely known as the father of naval aviation. The picture below shows one of his many attempts to take off from a warship — in the image he is attempting to take off from the USS Birmingham in 1910.

Ultimately, a consummate daredevil, Ely became the first person in history to land an aircraft on a warship, the USS Pensylvania. 

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Ely taking off from the USS Birmingham, Source: W.Wolny/Wikimedia Commons

On January 18, 1911, Ely flew from the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, and landed on the USS Pennsylvania.

On November 12, 2010, in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ely's flight, Naval Commander Bob Coolbaugh took off from the runway of the NAS Norfolk in a purposefully built replica of Ely's Curtiss aircraft.

4. HMS Argus, the first flat-top aircraft carrier

As a sign of how incredibly quickly war technology advances, only 8 years after Eugene Ely's warship landing, Britain's HMW Argus became the first example of a flat-topped aircraft carrier specially modified to allow aircraft to take off and land on top of it.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Used as an aircraft carrier in World War II, the Royal Navy's HMS Argus was used to escort planes like the Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, and the Blackburn Skua.

4. Hōshō: the first commissioned aircraft carrier

While many warships were modified into becoming seaplane carriers or aircraft carriers before 1920, Japan's Hōshō was the first warship that was specifically commissioned and built as an aircraft carrier.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, Hōshō was present during the Battle of Midway in 1942. The aircraft carrier, however, was mainly used for training on Japanese home waters. Hōshō's relatively small size meant that it wasn't particularly effective in combat situations.

After WWII, the Japanese aircraft carrier was used to help repatriate some 40,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians from overseas.

5. World War II carriers

Jet-powered airplanes started to emerge towards the end of WWII, leading to innovations in the design of aircraft carriers. As per Nocgms, some aircraft carriers started to use angled landing strips at this time.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
SourceWikimedia Commons

Angled landing strips would lift approximately 9 ft off of the carrier's main axis, allowing for a safer landing. If a pilot were to come in too quickly, they could easily take off again and come back around thanks to the elevation — more on this in number 7.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
A Grumman F65 Hellcat crash landing on USS Enterprise's flight deck during WWII, SourceWikimedia Commons

Some of the most notable aircraft carriers of WWII include the USS Enterprise, the United States' most decorated warship during the war, the HMS Ark Royal, and Germany's Bismarck battleship.

6. The first jet plane takes off from carrier HMS Ocean

34 years after Eugene Ely's warship aircraft landing in 1911, Eric Brown, from the British Royal Navy, became the first person to take off and land on an aircraft carrier in a jet aircraft.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On December 3, 1945, Brown flew a de Havilland Sea Vampire to the HMS Ocean, where he landed and then took off again.

Eric Brown is the most decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Navy. As a test pilot, he also holds the world record for the most types of aircraft flown, at 487.

7. The ski-jump ramp takeoff innovation

Perhaps the earliest use of the ski-jump takeoff ramp was seen during WWII when a ramp was temporarily installed on the end of the flight deck of the HMS Furious. The makeshift contraption was added to help the bomb-heavy Fairey Barracudas take off.

The ski-jump ramp now helps heavy aircraft to take off on runways that would otherwise be too short. An aircraft typically needs a long runway to achieve flight speed and make lift more than gravity.

On a short runway, an aircraft will lose altitude shortly after takeoff and possibly fall into the sea. A ski-jump ramp, however, lets the aircraft leave the ground at a slight upward angle, converting its forward motion into a positive rate of climb.

Even traveling at an inadequate speed to generate lift at the time of takeoff, the extra elevation gives the aircraft extra time to accelerate and generate enough lift. 

8. Steam catapult takeoffs

On July 31, 1912, Theodore Gordon Ellyson became the first pilot to be launched from a U.S. Navy catapult system. Since then, the catapult takeoff has been honed and improved throughout the years and is used on modern aircraft carriers today.

Shortly after WWII, the Royal Navy started developing the steam-powered catapult takeoff, a method that helps planes take off at a high velocity, they wouldn't be able to achieve only using their engines.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
A jet plane preparing for a steam-powered catapult takeoff, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The steam-powered catapult holds an aircraft in place as steam pressure builds up. It then breaks, freeing a piston that shoots the aircraft down the flight deck at high speed.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Steam-powered catapults allow jet aircraft to gain enough speed to take off within about two to four seconds, even if they have lost one engine. 

9. Helicopter carriers

In the 1950s, the invention of the helicopter ushered in the invention of a new type of aircraft carrier, the helicopter carrier. These were typically smaller as they only needed space for vertical takeoffs.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
The USS Iwo Jima, SourceWikimedia Commons

The USS Iwo Jima, pictured above was used by the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War to transport helicopters, tanker trucks, and vehicles. In 1970, it was used as part of Task Force 130, which recovered the Apollo 13 command module from the sea.

10. The Nuclear Age and Supercarriers

After WWII, the nuclear age brought on further innovations in aircraft carriers. Nuclear reactors were installed in warships, such as the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.


These reactors allow ships to operate for a much longer period than they were previously capable of, meaning that large scale missions far from home became more feasible. 

That innovation was one of the main innovations that brought us to the modern aircraft carrier, which is unofficially designated as the "supercarrier." The Nimitz Class carriers of the U.S. Navy are some of the biggest aircraft carriers today.

Nimitz Class ships can carry 60 aircraft and tower 20 stories above sea level. They are powered by two nuclear reactors, meaning they can reach a top speed of 30 kt.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
USS Dweight D. Eisenhower, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other notable modern-day aircraft carriers are the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth Class, China's Liaoning (16), and the Russian Navy's Admiral Kuznetsov, which is the fifth-largest aircraft carrier in the world.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supercarriers use state of the art technology, including unmanned drones, 3D air-search radar, and Sea Sparrow missiles.

11. The world's largest aircraft carrier today, the USS Gerald R. Ford

The largest aircraft carrier in the world is the USS Gerald R. Ford of the United States Navy. Expected to be fully operational as of 2022, the USS Gerald R. Ford is equipped with new electromagnetic aircraft launch systems and has a 78m-wide flight deck.

11 Iconic Historical Evolutions of Aircraft Carriers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It can carry over 75 aircraft and 4,539 personnel. The USS Gerald R. Ford is powered by two A1B nuclear reactors and it will be the most state-of-the-art aircraft carrier in existence when it is operational.

Quite the change when compared to balloon barge carriers of a little over a hundred years ago.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron