USS LANGLEY (CV 1)
From floating fuel farm to first flattop, the “Covered Wagon” was a trailblazer.
BY EDWARD LUNDQUIST
The story of the USS Langley (CV 1), America’s first aircraft carrier and the first electric-drive ship, is unique in more ways than one. And lessons learned on Langley are still being applied today – 100 years later.
While she wasn’t designed to be an aircraft carrier, she was heavily modified from the time she began her life in 1912 as a collier named USS Jupiter. Originally classified as Fuel Ship No. 3, or Fleet Collier No. 3, and eventually AC 3, Jupiter was one of four Proteus-class colliers built for the U.S. Navy. But while her near sisters were propelled by reciprocating steam engines (Cyclops and Proteus) and geared steam-turbine drive (Nereus), Jupiter was singled out for a new kind of electric drive. Her two (later three) boilers powered two shafts through a General Electric turbo-electric transmission to give her 7,000 shaft horsepower and a top speed of about 15 knots, with a range of about 3,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 12 knots. One of the benefits of the electric-drive system was a somewhat simplified propulsion plant. The boilers powered turbines that in turn powered large turbo-electric motors connected to the propeller shafts. The need for large reduction gears was eliminated. Turbo-electric drive was successful enough that the Navy used the propulsion system in six battleships commissioned between 1918 and 1923, as well as two battlecruisers converted into the big aircraft carriers Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3).
Jupiter was bound up with U.S. Navy aviation even before conversion to an aircraft carrier. One of her first captains, from April 1913 to April 1914, was Cmdr. Joseph M. “Bull” Reeves, later known as the “Father of Carrier Aviation” for his work in integrating aircraft carriers into the fleet. Not long after, with America’s entry into World War I in 1917, the government of France requested American naval aviators to carry out patrols against the German U-boat threat. In response, the U.S. Navy’s 1st Naval Air Unit, or Aeronautic Detachment No. 1, was formed, under the leadership of Lt. Kenneth Whiting, a naval aviation pioneer who would become the first executive officer of USS Langley when she was commissioned, and later her captain. Jupiter was called upon in May to transport personnel of Aeronautic Detachment No. 1 to France, docking at Brest on June 5, 1917 – the first U.S. military unit to arrive in France.
When World War I ended in November 1918, the U.S. Navy began to draw down in numbers of ships and personnel. Coal as a fuel for warships was also on its way out, so Jupiter’s career as a collier was a relatively short one. Jupiter was taken out of service in 1920, and that’s when her transformation into an entirely new type of ship – the aircraft carrier – began.
Jupiter was a good candidate for conversion because she had a lot of internal space for carrying fuel and stowing aircraft and parts. The Jupiter’s six coal bunkers would provide ample space for Langley’s aircraft and associated logistical and maintenance requirements.
The forwardmost (No. 1) coal bunker was converted to hold 578 tons of aviation fuel. Bunkers 2, 3, 5, and 6 held unassembled aircraft, machine shops, and parts. The upper half of No. 4 was dedicated to the machinery for the flight deck elevator. An unfortunate feature of the elevator was that when fully lowered, it still stood several feet above the main deck, which meant aircraft had to be craned on to it from the main deck. The ship’s magazine was located beneath the elevator machinery spaces. Her conversion required a reconfiguration of her stacks (one of several) to accommodate her flight deck, which ran the entire length of the ship, covered her bridge and deckhouse, and stood high above the main deck, elevated on spindly steel truss towers. The combination of these towers and the wooden flight deck above earned her the nickname “Covered Wagon.” A gantry crane traveling fore and aft beneath the flight deck transported aircraft from the holds to the main deck and onto the elevator. Arresting wires were arranged both athwartships and fore and aft over the flight deck, and a catapult was installed at the bow.
The Langley had no actual hangar deck. Aircraft were brought up from the holds, assembled or serviced on the ship’s original main deck, which was more or less open to the elements, and craned onto the elevator, which then raised them to the flight deck. With these and other changes, USS Langley was commissioned March 20, 1922, with XO Cmdr. Whiting as her acting commander. Since Whiting had been one of the most outspoken advocates for aircraft carriers during the interwar years, it was fitting that he was the de facto first commander of the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier.
Her conversion to an aircraft carrier was basically an experiment, because Langley, with her 15-knot top speed, was never going to be fast enough to keep up with the fleet. The experiments carried out aboard Langley, however, became the basis of all U.S. Navy aircraft carrier operations to follow, and included many “firsts.”
On Oct. 17, 1922, Lt. V.C. Griffin performed the first U.S. Navy aircraft carrier takeoff, flying a Vought VE-7SF from Langley’s deck. On Oct. 26, Lt. Cmdr. Godfrey deC. Chevalier performed the first carrier landing in an Aeromarine 39B, and on Nov. 18, XO Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting was catapulted from Langley in a PT seaplane, the carrier’s first catapult launch. The words “pilots, man your planes,” “rig the deck,” and “stand by to start engines,” were uttered for the very first time aboard Langley, the beginning of a culture and traditions that have lasted into the 21st century. These “firsts” were incidental to the pioneering experiments carried out aboard the carrier. Langley experimented with different types of arresting gear, catapult types, and how to overcome the many new challenges and dangers of naval aviation. Netting was rigged outboard of the flight deck for crewmembers to use during flight operations and to jump into in case of crashes. Hooks were developed and built for the landing gear of aircraft to engage the longitudinal arresting wires, as well as tailhooks for the crossdeck wires. Plane-handling crews were organized, and since there were no radios in the planes, hand signals had to be developed to use with the naval aviators when directing aircraft on deck.
One of the first problems was how to conduct the first-time launch of Griffin’s Vought when, like most aircraft of the era, it had nothing more than free-wheeling main gear and a tailskid.
“Since planes had no brakes, it was necessary to develop a device consisting of a bomb release attached to a wire about five feet long to allow a plane to turn up to full power and start its deck run,” wrote Rear Adm. Jackson R. Tate in “We Rode the Covered Wagon,” one of the chapters in The Golden Age Remembered, edited by E.T. Wooldridge. “The bomb release was hooked to a ring on the landing gear and the end of the wire to a hold-down fitting on deck. A cord led from the bomb-release trigger to an operator on deck, who could release the plane on signal. … Griffin turned the Hispano-Suiza engine in the Vought up to its full 150 horsepower and gave the signal to pull the trigger on the bombrelease gadget. The released plane rolled down the deck and lifted off easily before it reached the elevator.”
Fore and aft arresting gear, engaged by hooks attached to the axles of the aircraft’s landing gear, was tested as a way to keep an aircraft from swinging out over the side of the flight deck after hook engagement, but was eventually abandoned, while the athwartships arresting gear idea was based on the concept Eugene Ely had used to land aboard Pennsylvania in 1911. All of it was developed in large part through the work of Lt. A. Melville Pride and Lt. Fred William Pennoyer. Various carrier approaches were tested, and a left-hand circuit with “a slow-turning flat approach with the nose high and using power” became standard, according to Tate. Whiting, by this time, was having all the landings filmed with a motion picture camera to determine the best approaches and techniques as well as what went wrong in crashes, which could be considered the forerunner of the PLAT cameras used today.
Landing aboard, aviators of that time were on their own, but experience aboard Langley changed that.
“When he wasn’t flying, the executive officer [Whiting] watched every landing from the after port corner of the flight deck and mentally made each landing himself,” Tate wrote. “He talked each plane in: ‘He’s too low … now OK … too high,’ etc., with appropriate motions of his hands. Whiting was surprised when informed that all the pilots had noted his anxiety and actions. They did agree that it was a good idea to place an experienced pilot aft on the port side, so at a later conference the job of landing signal officer was set up. The ‘cut’ and other signals were added later and from then on the pilot was no longer just ‘on his own.’”
Night flying and night deck-landings were another new idea to be explored, as well as lighting on the flight deck to aid aviators making those landings. Langley normally carried a squadron of 12 aircraft, plus a handful of utility aircraft, but the promotion of Reeves as Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, changed that. The shortcomings of having a single elevator that had to have aircraft craned on and off of it were that it took several long minutes to perform the evolution. Storing aircraft on the main deck and then hoisting them up to the flight deck severely restricted the tempo of flight operations. Breaking with British and Japanese practice, Reeves insisted on spotting aircraft on the flight deck in a “deck park,” eventually increasing the Langley’s aircraft capacity to 34-36 on the flight deck, with a few more stowed below. With the aviators and crew of the Langley, Reeves succeeded in developing techniques to operate more aircraft at a faster pace for launches and recoveries. Langley also demonstrated the potential of the aircraft carrier and its embarked air group during exercises such as Fleet Problem VII, in 1927, when Langley’s aircraft carried out a successful attack on the Panama Canal, and Fleet Problem VIII in 1928, when her planes achieved complete surprise in an early morning attack on Oahu.
Another collier was planned for a conversion; however, it became clear that the larger, faster ships would be more useful. But Langley showed it could be done. Rather than convert more colliers to carriers, bigger and faster carriers would be required.
So, just as Langley, with her modest flight deck, was entering service, two huge carriers were coming into existence. Because the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 prohibited new battleship and battlecruiser construction, the Navy took advantage of a pair of battle cruisers that could be repurposed. USS Lexington (CC 1) and USS Saratoga (CC 2) were completed as aircraft carriers CV 2 and CV 3. At 888 feet long and topping out at 48,000 tons, they were substantially larger than Langley (the United States wouldn’t build bigger CVs until the Midway class entered service at the end of World War II). And because they were designed as battle force ships, they had the hull form and propulsion plant to set the pace for any battle group. Lexington and Saratoga were real combatants. They were followed by two unique carriers, Ranger and Wasp, then the Yorktown class, and soon after, the Essex class and several other classes of light and escort carriers [see “Aircraft Carrier Evolution” article].
In 1934, new U.S. legislation included Langley in aircraft carrier tonnage, and the Navy needed to divest itself of the ship, at least in her CV role. In 1937, with new and more capable carriers on the way, Langley was converted to serve as a seaplane tender (AV 3), with a significant portion of her forward flight deck removed.
As a seaplane tender, she also had the room to ferry aircraft. At the outbreak of World War II, she was in the Far East, and in February 1942 was being used to deliver Army P-40 aircraft to the beleaguered Dutch forces in Indonesia when she was attacked and severely damaged by a Japanese aircraft. Her crew was removed to her escort ships and Langley was scuttled. Unfortunately, some of the ships involved in getting the Langley crew to safety were also attacked and lost.
But despite her tragic demise, and the fact that she didn’t serve as an aircraft carrier in World War II, she did make invaluable contributions to carrier aviation that helped to win the war, much of which survive today in training, tactics, and procedures. Langley provided naval aviators with valuable experience taking off from a pitching flight deck; utilized early catapults; was the forerunner in using arresting gear; developed the concept of the landing signal officer; and tested and developed carrier operations and tactics. Langley conducted flight operations in adverse conditions, including blind landings and night landings, and in all different environmental conditions, including cold weather operations. It was Langley that signaled a clear deck for generations to come.