By Naval History and Heritage Command
The aircraft carrier. Without a doubt, one of the most impressive ships to sail the sea, a floating city loaded with aircraft that can be launched to attack ships or shore, from nearly anywhere in the world.
As with many great things, the origins of the aircraft carrier came from a more humble beginning. When the keel was laid for the Proteus-class collier named Jupiter, she was already more than just a bulk cargo ship used to carry coal to keep other ships in fuel. She was designed to be the first turbo electrically-propelled ship, an experiment to improve safety on ships where fire from coal dust could quickly turn deadly. The interest in this experiment had President William Taft attend the keel-laying ceremony Oct. 18, 1911 at Mare Island Shipyard in California. While USS Jupiter (AC 3) was commissioned April 7, 1913, it was her rebirth March 20, 1920, as the nation’s first aircraft carrier, for which this ship will be remembered.
Serving the fleet in two wars
After USS Jupiter (AC 3) was commissioned, she saw active service in the Pacific Fleet at Mazatlan, Mexico during the Veracruz crisis in 1914. She was then the first vessel to transit the Panama Canal from west to east on Columbus Day, 1914. During World War I, Jupiter provided coal to ships in France from 1917-18. A hint of her future may have been revealed as Jupiter transported the first U.S. naval aviation detachment to arrive in Europe. The detachment consisted of seven officers and 122 men commanded by Lt. Kenneth Whiting.
After World War I, in which USS Jupiter earned the World War I Victory Medal, the ship that was already the first electrically-powered, would be transformed into another first: the nation’s first aircraft carrier. After sailing into Norfolk, USS Jupiter was decommissioned March 24, 1920. Work began to transform the collier into the nation’s first designed aircraft carrier, renamed USS Langley (AC 1) on April 11, 1920.
Lofty goals for naval aviation
It was only fitting that Langley be named in honor of Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. Like other aviation pioneers, Langley was obsessed with creating a working “heavier-than-air-aircraft” for the Navy. He ended up spending the rest of his life competing against those other titans of aviation, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who won the patent. Langley didn’t win the patent for his “aerodrome”. Also, Langley’s repeated attempts at launching aircraft from a ship never succeeded. The famous English poet, Rudyard Kipling, wrote accolades of him for his persistence and commented:
“Through [President Theodore] Roosevelt I met Professor Langley of the Smithsonian, an old man who had designed a model aeroplane…it flew on trial over two hundred yards, and drowned itself in the waters of the Potomac, which was cause of great mirth and humour to the Press of his country. Langley took it coolly enough and said to me that, though he would never live till then, I should see the aeroplane established.”
Langley died in 1906 without having successfully flown his “aerodrome,” but he succeeded igniting the Navy’s desire to launch and land aircraft from ships at sea. The Navy took up where Langley left off.
Transforming collier into carrier
As a collier, Jupiter had seven 50-foot tall A-frame towers mounted on the upper deck to load and unload coal. The A-frame bases were used to support another deck and a platform elevator to carry aircraft from the hanger to the flight deck. Since the ship was built primarily for testing and experimentation for “seaborne aviation,” there was no control tower or what, on more modern carriers is called the “island.” Her flight deck, supported by heavy steel girders, covered the entire ship from bow to stern, earning her the nickname “Covered Wagon,” because the deck resembled a giant canopy. Langley’s insignia even conveyed the image of a ship with a loop canopy cover, invoking the American pioneer days when settlers moved west in Conestoga wagons, known as “prairie schooners.”
She was recommissioned March 20, 1922. Her first executive officer felt right at home on the new ship: Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting, a former submarine commander turned aviator who had been transported to England by the collier Jupiter. Whiting, who earned the title “Father of the Aircraft Carrier,” was the last naval aviator to take training personally from Orville Wright.
On Oct. 17, 1922, Lt. Virgil C. Griffin, launched Langley’s first airplane from her deck, a Vought VE-7. Nine days later, Lt. Cmdr. Godfrey D. Chevalier made the first landing on Langley’s deck near Norfolk, Va., on Oct. 26, 1922. Once those wheels skidded on the flight deck, the Navy had finally gained the capability of launching aircraft from and safely returning them and their pilots safely to a ship. A month later, on Nov. 18, 1922, Cmdr. Whiting became the first aviator to be catapulted from a carrier’s deck.
Langley served as an unarmed test bed for flight deck and flight operations throughout the 1920s. During this time, the Navy would learn from its experiences on Langley how better to park and launch aircraft more quickly, which set the stage for the fleet aircraft carriers that followed, such as Ranger, Lexington and Saratoga, all ships built with flight decks that were wider, longer and sturdier.
Not everything to do with flight managed to make it successfully onto the new aircraft carrier. Since carrier pigeons had been used for communications during World War I, a carrier pigeon house was planned for the transformed aircraft carrier. Apparently carrier pigeon training was lacking at Naval Station Norfolk. While the pigeons would return to the ship if only a few were released, once the whole flock was released, the birds flew back to the shipyard rather than to the ship to roost. So the pigeons were fired and the pigeon coop became the executive officer’s office.
With newer aircraft carriers being built based on lessons learned from USS Langley, the ship was decommissioned Feb. 26, 1937. She was reclassified and converted into a seaplane tender with the hull number AV-3.
During World War II, Langley was assigned to the Aircraft Scouting Force in the Pacific, where she assisted the Royal Australian Air Force on anti-submarine patrols. On Feb. 27, 1942, Langley was rendezvousing with destroyers USS Whipple and USS Edsall off the coast of Indonesia as part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDACOM) Command. At about noon she was attacked by nine Japanese dive bombers. Although the destroyers did all they could to protect her, Langley’s speed didn’t exceed 10 knots, slowing down her escape. She survived the first two strikes owing to Cmdr. R. P. McConnell, her skipper, and his skill at hard rudder turns, and avoided two bomb waves. But on the third, she took five hits, and her engine room quickly flooded. At about 1:30 p.m., Cmdr. McConnell gave the order to abandon ship. Langley’s crew then watched from the decks of Whipple and Edsall as the destroyers fired shells and torpedoes into the former collier and aircraft carrier so she wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
Langley helped train the Navy’s first aircraft carrier pilots, and they proved invaluable for the Navy on Lexington (CV 2) at the Battle of Coral Sea and on Saratoga (CV 3) at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons during the Guadalcanal Campaign. There Navy airmen successfully helped damage and sink enemy aircraft carriers. Of those navy aviators who served aboard Langley, five became rear admirals, four became vice admirals and four became four-star admirals.
USS Langley (CV 1)
A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers -Part I – The Early Years