One of the earliest examples of naval aviation came from the American Civil War. Thaddeus Lowe, a balloonist, was contracted by the Union Army to do aerial reconnaissance of Confederate troops. A barge known as the George Washington Parke Custis was towed behind the steamship Coeur de Lion on the Potomac River as a platform for Lowe to launch from.1 The U.S. Navy began experimenting with operations involving aircraft in 1910. This was organized by the first ever Navy Officer in Command of Aviation, Capt. W. I. Chambers, as an experiment in the feasibility of launching a plane from a ship.2 The USS Birmingham (CL-2) had a special platform built on its bow to allow the takeoff of a civilian plane. This civilian was Eugene Ely, trained by Glenn H. Curtiss. The flight began in Hampton Roads and ended in Willoughby Spit. Later that year Curtiss offered to train the Navy’s first pilot at his own expense. Lt. T. G. Ellyson became the Navy’s first trained pilot. 3 There was yet more discussion about a ship which could serve as a floating platform for launching planes, but it took until 1922 to make it happen.
Post World War I
The Great War was one of the bloodiest conflicts ever fought on European soil. However, it was also one of the greatest naval wars in history, although aircraft carriers were not involved in naval operations. Fighter planes were becoming one of the major instruments of conducting war. After the war, in 1922, the USS Jupiter was converted into the USS Langley, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier. It wasn’t until the 1930’s before an aircraft carrier was designed and built from the ground up instead of converting pre-existing ships. In 1934 the USS Ranger was commissioned, followed quickly by the USS Yorktown and the USS Enterprise.4 These difference between these and modern carriers is that they featured flat decks and arresting cables designed for propeller aircraft.
1 “George Washington Parke Custis,” Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/g4/george_washington_parke_custis.htm. (accessed March 27, 2013).
2 Scot MacDonald, “The Aeroplane Goes to Sea,” in Evolution of Aircraft Carriers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), 3-4. http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/car-toc.htm. (accessed March 27, 2013).
3 Curtiss was the pilot who flew from Albany to New York. It was this act that caught the attention of Capt. Chambers and the Navy. Ibid.
4 “A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers, Part I – The Early Years,” Department of the Navy. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=1. (accessed March 27, 2013).