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100 Years of Carrier Aviation

Last time I talked about research. I will get back to the subject of research next time, but today let me share some of its early fruits.

This book is being researched and written 100 years since the first aircraft and seaplane carriers began to see service. Already, it is now more a century since the first naval air raids were launched. First, in September 1914 a Japanese Maurice Farman seaplane from the Wakamiya bombed German and Austrian warships in Tsingtao, then on Christmas Day 1914 the British bombed the Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven. Both were seaplane raids launched from converted merchant ships. And today, 10 January, marks another important anniversary in carrier aviation. A century ago today, on 10 January 1915, Ark Royal left port for the first time to begin its naval career.

1  The Ark Royal in 1915

The Ark Royal in 1915

Ark Royal was the word’s first ship designed and built to carry aircraft. Some sources call it a merchant conversion. That is about as accurate as calling Flower-class corvettes ‘merchant conversions’ because the corvette’s hull plan and machinery layout were adapted from Southern Pride-class whale catchers. Ark Royal’s hull came from a ship intended as a merchant bulk carrier. The ship’s keel was laid down and hull framed before the Royal Navy purchased it in May 1914. But everything inside it was designed or redesigned by the Royal Navy.

The machinery, funnel and superstructure, originally intended for amidships, were shoved aft, giving it the appearance of a tanker. (Actually, it was as originally intended to carry coal and grain.) An honest-to-God aircraft hangar was placed running most of the forward two-thirds of the ship. This hangar deck contained workshops for servicing aircraft and their engines, as well as storage space for spare parts, lubricants, fuel, and ordnance required by the aircraft. The hangar could hold seven to eight aircraft, storing them in a sheltered space protected from the elements.

2. In the Hanger Deck of Ark Royal

In the hangar deck of Ark Royal

A sliding hatch amidships, 40ft by 30ft, gave access to the hangar. Aircraft could be lifted out of the hangar and into (and out of) the sea by of five-ton cranes on either side of the hatch. Ark Royal was also equipped with a set of ballast tanks to shift the metacentric height of the ship when handling aircraft, although these were never used. (They proved unnecessary.)

The ground tackle and anchor chains ran on a deck, between the upper deck and the hanger deck. This left the upper deck clear for an aircraft launching ramp. Despite its plebian origins, Ark Royal was one of the most technologically advanced warships of its era.

That is not to say Ark Royal was a super-ship. It was an experiment, built using only the brief experience the Royal Navy had of handling aircraft at sea. (One reason the unneeded ballast tanks were installed.) Its biggest flaw was slow speed: 11 knots. It could not operate with the battle fleet, which cruised at 18 knots. It also left it dangerously vulnerable to U-boats, an unrealized menace when it was designed. Despite this Ark Royal was the model for all future aircraft carriers, from Argus in World War I through the Nimitz­-class nuclear carriers of the 21st century.

Launched on 5 September 1914, at Blyth, England, and commissioned on 10 December, Ark Royal spent another month in Blyth, fitting out. On 10 January 1915 it steamed out of harbour for the first time, bound for Southampton, where it would pick up its aircraft and aviation personnel. From there it was off to war – a story for another day.


3. Ark Royal lowering Short 184 into the water 1916

Ark Royal lowering Short 184 into the water 1916