A Story of America’s First Aircraft Carrier USS Langley (CV-1) by the designer of the world's largest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford
USS Langley(CV-1) the legendary “covered wagon” was the first US aircraft carrier ever built, commissioned in March of 1922.
She was converted from a commercial coal carrier ship, the Jupiter, in 1920 at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The same shipyard built the last two Essex class carriers: USS Shangri-La and USS Lake Champlain.
USS Langley before her conversion to an Aircraft Carrier
We learned much from Langley, but she was not the first aircraft carrier.
While Langley was the first US aircraft carrier, the British converted three ships to carriers during WW I.
The Wright Brothers first demonstrated flight with “heavier-than-air” airplanes in 1903. They flew their plane again in 1907 at the Jamestown Exposition and again in 1908 at Fort Myer, VA where they were observed by Captain W. Irving Chambers, the Officer-in-Charge of Naval Aviation from September 1910 to December 1913.
Eugene Ely taking off from the USS Birmingham in 1910
With the rapid development of land-based aircraft during WW I, the Wright Brothers turned their attention to preserving the patents of their invention while another aviation pioneer, Glen Curtis pushed the use of aircraft by the Navy.
Curtis made a successful flight from Albany to New York City in 1910, and after landing, predicted that “the battle of the future will be fought in the air,” and added, that as ships are “encumbered [by] their turrets and military masts, they cannot launch air fighters, and without these to defend them, they would be blown apart in the case of war.” To make his point, he did a series of tests of lobbing “bombs” from his aircraft onto targets shaped as large as battleships on Keuka Lake, one of the Finger Lakes In N.Y, near Hammondsport.
USS Langley being sunk by USS Whipple, pictured from USS Whipple, February 27, 1942
In October of 1910, Chambers met Curtis in Halethrope, Maryland where Curtis invited the Naval Academy to send midshipmen to hear about aviation. Instead of midshipmen, Chambers and two other naval officers attended.
Also at that meeting, Chambers met a Curtis trained pilot, Eugene Ely. Together, Curtis, Ely and Chambers developed a series of tests to prove the worth of aircraft operating at sea. The first test was to launch an aircraft off a ship that was competing for public attention with a similar test by the Germans. The Wright Brothers were invited but demurred.
USS Langley crossing the Panama Canal
A temporary wooden platform was erected on the USS Birmingham at Norfolk Naval Yard. Then, on 14 November 1910, the USS Birmingham with three torpedo destroyers full of observers moved into waters off Hampton Roads.
The weather was poor, but Ely roared off the platform. His airplane took a dangerous dip when it left the platform, and the wing pontoons and propellers struck the water, splashing Ely. Momentary baptism and a light rain blanketed his vision, but he soon saw the sandy beaches of Willoughby Spit and landed, ending a 2 ½ mile flight.
Now they needed to prove that an aircraft could land on a ship.
Across the country, the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania was chosen while at Mare Island where another platform was constructed and installed. Twenty two weighted lines tied to sand bags were stretched across the deck as a simple arresting gear.
Just two months later, on 18 January 1911, Ely took off from a shore airdrome, and approached USS Pennsylvania unprepared for the vision he saw. Dangerously gathered forward of the landing area, was a large congregation of sailors to witness the historic event.
Ely nailed the landing. Three hooks beneath his fuselage grabbed the lines stretched across the deck and brought him to a safe stop.
When Ely reached the Captain’s cabin where his wife was, he collapsed in her arms from the stress of landing the aircraft. Months later Ely would die demonstrating Curtis’s flying machine at the state fair in Georgia. There is a saying in naval aviation: There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Eugene Ely, Naval Aviator Number One, was a bold pilot. God bless him.
Langley was a historical turning point as the ability to launch and return airplanes from a floating runway became a major factor in the Navy’s global usefulness.
All of a sudden the Navy could land substantial strikes inland and engage combatants miles away from their location.
Langley was also the first turbo electric powered ship the US Navy had ever built. Two General Electric turbo transmissions were powered by steam turbines that created electricity which flowed throughout the ship and powered the propellers to speeds up to 16mph. Today’s modern-day carriers can reach speeds up to 40mph.
The Langley’s captain was famous for standing by the landing strip on the side of the ship in the netting and signaling to the pilots regarding their approach.
It was said the pilots were watching the Captain more than the landing strip. And the captain would give way to the first deck signaling officer who would eventually be out on the deck in a yellow jacket. Both sides of the ship had netting for seamen to walk around on and in case a plane went over.
The USS Langley carried planes such as the Boeing FB-5, Vought VE-7’s and the Curtis TS-1’s. In total she could hold 40 planes, was 542 feet long and had a displacement of 13,000 tons.
Due to the top of the ship being covered by the flight deck, the bridge was underneath on the starboard side almost at the bow of the ship and the smoke stack was on the port side. She had one elevator to bring the planes below for repairs and storage and the weight of the flight deck and the planes was a constant problem for the beams supporting below which necessitated frequent repairs at the shipyard.
USS Langley later in life
The ship was also noted for its carrier pigeon house on the stern between its 5 inch guns that was used to send messages before electric long distance communications were established.
USS Langley wasn’t the first flattop aircraft carrier as the British had converted both the HMS Argus in 1918 and the HMS Ark Royal in 1914, but the Langley was the first US carrier. The Hōshō, the world's first ship that was built as an aircraft carrier, and the first aircraft carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was commissioned in 1921.
In 1937 the Langley was converted to a seaplane tender. Her flight deck was reduced in length and used only to park aircraft.
In the Pacific during Worldwide War II, the Japanese advanced south towards Australia at a much quicker rate than the military had anticipated. This caused the Navy to rush the Langley up the west coast of Australia to bring reinforcements. The allies badly needed her cargo, 32 U.S. Army Air Force Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk" aircrafts, for the defense of Java against the Japanese advance.
This was February of 1942, just 2 months after the attack at Pearl Harbor so the Navy was still severely debilitated. When the Japanese Navy struck with several direct hits, the Langley’s destroyer escort USS Whipple (DD-217) was forced to scuttle her on February 27th, with all 32 P-40’s on board. She now resides at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean 75 miles south of Tjilatjap.
Written by Tal Manvel, Edited by Jules Hirschkorn & Alexander Fleiss