The Evolution of Aircraft Carrier’s Flight Deck

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The Evolution of Aircraft Carrier's Flight Deck copy
Sailors' cars parked on the USS Ronald Reagan carrier (photo: en.wikipedia.org)

Forcesproject.com – The flight deck of an refers the surface from which its aircraft take off and land, essentially a miniature airfield at sea. On smaller naval ships which do not have aerospace as a primary mission, the landing area for helicopters and other aircraft is also referred to as the flight deck.

Numerous innovations were introduced to the flight decks. The first one were inclined wooden ramps built over the forecastle of warships. Eugene Ely made the first fixed-wing aircraft take-off from a warship from USS Birmingham on 14 November 1910. After several months, the landing process took place on Curtiss pusher plane on a platform on Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay using the first tailhook system, designed and built by circus performer and aviator Hugh Robinson.

Another typical deck is full length which can be seen in the HMS Argus carrier. This ship had a large flat wooden deck added over the entire length of the hull, that can give a combined landing and take-off deck unobstructed by superstructure turbulence. Due to her unobstructed flight deck, Argus had no fixed conning tower or funnel. Instead, exhaust gases were piped down the ship's side and vented under the flight deck's fantail.

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The Evolution of Aircraft Carrier's Flight Deck copy
HMS Argus showing the full-length flight deck from bow to stern (photo: en.wikipedia.org)

Moreover, early ships were typically equipped with cruiser-calibre guns to aid in their defence if surprised by enemy warships. In this typical ship, the hangar deck was the strength deck and an integral part of the hull, and the hangar and light steel flight deck were considered to be part of the superstructure. Such ships were still being built into the late 1940s, classic examples being the U.S. Navy's Essex and Ticonderoga-class carriers. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, commenced construction of the Illustrious class in 1936. The flight deck, which was an integral part of the hull and heavily armoured to protect the ship and her air complement, was the strongest deck on these ships. This was necessitated by the ever-increasing size of the ships, from the 13,000 ton USS Langley in 1922 to over 100,000 tons in the latest Nimitz-class and Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.

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Additionally, Unarmoured flight decks were initially preferred by the United States Navy because they maximized aircraft carrier hangar and flight deck size, resulting in increased aircraft capacity in the hangar and on the flight deck in the form of a permanent “deck park” for a large proportion of the aircraft carried.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy developed an armoured flight deck aircraft carrier in 1936, which also had armour on the hangar sides and ends. The installation of armour to the flight deck allowed some protection to aircraft below from aerial bombs, while the armour hangar sides and ends helped to reduce damage and casualties caused by explosions or flames within or outside the hangar. The armour also reduced the length of the flight deck, reducing the maximum aircraft capacity of the armoured flight deck aircraft carrier.

The further development relates to angled flight deck which was invented by Royal Navy Captain, Dennis Cambell. The angled flight deck was constructed to accommodate jet aircraft's faster landing speeds, which would have required the entire length of a centreline flight deck to come to a halt. The angled flight deck was first tested in 1952 on HMS Triumph by painting angled deck markings onto the centerline of the flight deck for touch-and-go landings. This was also tested on USS Midway the same year.

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The last one refers to the Sky-jump deck. A ski-jump uses a curving ramp at the end of the flight deck to transform some of the aircraft's forward velocity into upward motion. As a consequence, the aircraft has a positive rate-of-climb when it takes off. This allows heavier airplanes to take off despite the lower lift created. Although the rising velocity of the aircraft decreases due to gravity, the aircraft continues to accelerate after leaving the flight deck. The airplane is moving fast enough to achieve stable flight by the time the upward velocity has dropped to zero. For instance, in May 1990, a Royal Navy Sea Harrier took flight from the ski-jump on the deck of HMS Invincible.

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