For almost 80 years, the aircraft carrier has been the most powerful warship on the high seas. Just over six decades ago, the carrier reached a new level of potency when the angled deck was introduced. Some carriers were re-fitted with it while others were designed with the advanced tech from the get-go — but how did a shift in the deck make carriers even deadlier?
First, let's take a look at how carriers operated in World War II and, to a large extent, in the Korean War. The naval aviation workhorse of those conflicts, the Essex-class carrier, had a straight-deck design. To deliver some hurt to the enemy, carriers would launch "deckload" strikes, sending off most of their air group (in World War II, this consisted of 36 F6F fighters, 36 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, and 18 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers).
USS Intrepid (CV 11) in 1944. Her propeller-driven Hellcats were easy to stop when they landed.
Carriers, at the time, could either launch planes or land them — they couldn't do both at the same time. When launching deckload strikes of propeller-driven planes, it wasn't an issue. All planes would leave at once and, later, all return. When it came time to bring aircraft home, the propeller planes were easy to stop — they were light and slow relatively to the jets that had just started to come online.
The use of jets off aircraft carriers changed things - the F9F Panthers were faster and heavier than the World War II-era piston-engine fighters. It is easy to see how a jet that misses the wires could make things very ugly.
Jets were a game-changer for several reasons: They were faster and heavier and, thus, needed more space to stop. They also didn't have the endurance to wait for other planes to launch. So, how could they find the runway space needed to operate these new tools of war? Building larger carriers wasn't a complete solution — this wouldn't eliminate the issue of stopping jets should they fail to catch the wires.
The British decided to create an angled deck, thereby allowing a jet that missed the arresting wires a chance to go around.
(Animation by Anynobody)
Then, the British came up with the idea of angling the landing deck of carriers. Angling the deck gave the jets enough room to land and, if they missed the wires, they could go back around and try again — stopping the jet with a barrier became an absolute last resort.
Before and after photos of USS Intrepid showing the angled flight deck.
(Compilation of US Navy photos by Solicitr)
Not only did the angled deck allow for the use of jets, it also made carriers deadlier in general. Now, they could launch and land aircraft at the same time. This meant that a carrier could send a major strike out and, at the same time, land its combat air patrol. All in all, the angled deck had a very unintended (but welcome) consequence on carrier performance.
Check out the video below to see how the Navy explained the angled flight deck to sailors.