History

Check out America's first-ever aircraft carrier

Aircraft carriers are the largest warships on the sea, and the U.S. Navy's carriers are considered the world's most elite. They're so big they have their own ZIP code, and their reach and technological sophistication are unrivaled across the world.


On this date 96 years ago, the first aircraft carrier – the USS Langley – was commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier had been converted from the collier USS Jupiter, which was the Navy's first surface ship propelled by electric motors.

The Wright connection

President Warren G. Harding with Navy Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work and RAdm. William A. Moffett on the flight deck of USS Langley, 1922-23. (Navy photo, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting was the Langley's executive officer. He was a submarine commander turned aviator who was one of the last to take personal training from famed aviator Orville Wright, one of the two brothers credited with inventing, building, and flying the world's first airplane.

Also read: Paul Allen found the first carrier the US lost in WWII

The Langley was named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor who eventually became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also a massive aviation enthusiast. Ironically, Langley had the same spirit as the famed Wright brothers, but never quite had their success. He built his own airplane that he tried on several occasions to launch off ships.

While he didn't succeed, he did inspire the Navy's desire to launch and land aircraft from ships at sea. Sailors took up where he left off.

USS Langley's career

Approaching the flight deck of USS Langley during landing practice Oct. 19, 1922. (Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute Photographic Collection. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.)

The Langley was built primarily for testing and experimentation for seaborne aviation in the Pacific. It became the test platform for developing carrier operation techniques and tactics, notably helping the Navy learn to better land and launch aircraft more quickly.

Fifteen years after its commissioning, in 1937, the Langley was reclassified as a seaplane tender because newer aircraft carriers were available. It stayed stationed in the Pacific to support seaplane patrols and aircraft transportation services during the early months of World War II.

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On Feb. 27, 1942, the Langley was transporting U.S. Army P-40s off the coast of Indonesia when it was attacked by nine Japanese dive bombers. The escorting destroyers surrounding the carrier tried their best to help, but it wasn't enough. The Langley's crew was ordered to abandon ship, and the escort destroyers eventually torpedoed the Langley so it wouldn't fall into enemy hands.

View of USS Langley being abandoned after Japanese bombs crippled the ship south of Java, Feb. 27, 1942. USS Edsall is standing by off Langley's port side. Photographed from USS Whipple. (Photo by Captain Lawrence E. Divoll, USN(Retired), 1981. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph.)

More fun facts

• Despite being an aircraft carrier, the Langley didn't have a control tower – now known as "the island" – as the modern-day carriers do.

• It was nicknamed the "covered wagon" because its flight deck, which covered the entire ship, resembled a giant canopy.

• The first plane launch from the flight deck of the Langley was Oct. 17, 1922. The first landing was nine days later.