The Evolution of the Aircraft Carrier

Evolution of the Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are familiar sights at Portsmouth Naval Base, are the largest warships ever to be constructed for the Royal Navy. The ships have a displacement of approximately 65,000 tonnes (64,000 tons) and are 284 metres (932 ft) long and have a Carrier Air Wing of up to forty aircraft. The Queen Elizabeth class ships are true testaments to the technological advancement of the Royal Navy and its journey as an innovative pioneer which protects and serves the nation.

More than 100 years has passed between the birth of the very first purpose-designed aircraft carrying vessel, the Sea Plane Lighter, and the commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017.

The Sea Plane Lighter was not a powered craft, but a towed craft, designed originally to carry a sea plane (Curtis H12 or Felixstowe F2) rather than a wheeled aircraft. The rear of the Lighter was sunk enough to winch the sea plane into position, the Lighter was then re-floated and towed, often hundreds of miles, to the desired destination. This method extended the range of the aircraft and could be used to give a tactical advantage.

The Admiralty experimented with building a wooden deck on the back of the Lighter, placing a wheeled Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft onto the wooden deck and towing the whole contraption at 20 knots into the wind. With a 15-20 knot sea breeze it was possible to get a combined cross deck wind speed of around 40 knots, enough to ‘kite launch’ a Sopwith Camel on the 58 feet of deck length.

On 31st July 1918, Royal Navy Lieutenant Stuart Samson perfected the first take off from a Lighter with a fighter plane. 10 days later the Destroyer HMS Redoubt took a Lighter carrying a Sopwith Camel 2F.1 out into the North Sea and waited on station for Zeppelins coming across from Germany. As a Zeppelin L53 was spotted approaching, the Lighter was towed up to speed. The Camel which was piloted by Lieutenant Culley was launched, enabling it to intercept and destroy the Zeppelin L53. This attack left the German military shocked as they now realised that zeppelins could be intercepted by Sopwith Fighters so far out to sea. This one intervention helped to prevent further zeppelin attacks on Britain.

The Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset is not only home to the very popular aircraft carrier experience. Its collection also includes the last example of a Sea Plane Lighter known to exist in complete condition, with its own individual history still being researched by experts of the museum.

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