The which was laid in 1913 just prior to

The technical
development of Aircraft Carriers within the Royal Navy



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In this essay I will discuss how Aircraft carriers within
the Royal Navy have developed, talking specifically about their technical
development. I will begin within an overview of what an Aircraft carrier is and
how they operate, in terms of their engineering and how the ship is built to
accommodate aircraft and the aircrafts manoeuvrability on and off the ship. I
will then go into the history of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy starting
from HMS Eagle which was laid in 1913 just prior to WW1, and how they have
developed over time. I will then consider the technical development and the
milestones that the Royal Navy have overcome to improve their capabilities in
terms of aircraft carriers. This will then link to discussing aircraft carriers’
fitness for purpose including its effect on people, society and culture. For
the final part of my critical analysis, I will discuss why I want to die and
the new aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy – HMS Queen Elizabeth – and how she
differs from those previous and how she will increase the Navy’s capabilities
through technical and engineering enhancements and improvements; and how there
is potential for further development with the HMS Prince of Wales. In my
conclusion I will, based on my findings, talk about any improvements that could
be made to improve sustainability, efficiency and effectiveness.

Introduction – Overview of an Aircraft Carrier

In very simple terms an aircraft carrier
is simply a ship outfitted with a flight deck, which consists of a runway area
for launching and landing aircraft including airplanes and helicopters. In 1903
the Wright Brothers’ flew the first powered flight, within 10 years the US, UK
and Germany were launching test flights from platforms attached to cruisers 1. The experiments
proved successful which led various naval forces to adapt their existing
warships for this purpose. This is due to the fact that aircraft carriers allow
the transport of short-range aircraft all over the world. As aircraft
technology advanced and the need for new battle strategies increased, this lead
to the development of aircraft carriers from very basic platforms attached to
cruisers into technically robust ships like HMS Queen Elizabeth today. This has
allowed the Royal Navy’s capabilities to expand, so that they can cover more
areas of the world, work as a tri-service nationally and internationally and
improve the success rate in doing so. A
very general layout of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is illustrated in
figure 2, this tends to be similar for most aircraft carriers, with small
changes depending on it’s capacity and if it has any other functions.

Aircraft carriers generally will only
have a flight deck of around 150 metres, which is not adequate for landing and
launching aircraft like high speed jets. Therefore, technical advancements were
needed to make aircraft carriers adequate for not heavier and faster jets. This
led to the discovery of the tailhook. The tailhook is an extended hook attached
to the plane’s tail, the pilot’s goal is to catch the tailhook on one of four
arresting wires, which are made of high tensile steel wire; as can be seen in Figure
3. The arresting wires are stretched across the deck and are attached to
hydraulic cylinders below deck. The plane is stopped if the tailhook catches
one of the wires, it will be pulled out and the hydraulic cylinder absorbs the
energy. The arresting wire system can stop a 54,000-lb aircraft travelling at
150mph in only 2 seconds on a 96-metre landing area 2. The four parallel
arresting wires are spaced around 15 metres apart, so as to expand the target
area for the pilot. The third wire is the safest and most effective target, to
do this the pilot has to approach the deck at exactly the right angle. When the
pilot hits the deck, he will push the engines to full power instead of slowing
down, this is so that if the tailhook does not catch on of the arresting wires
he will need enough speed so as to take off again and come around again to try
again 2.

Launching the aircraft from
the carrier is again very difficult like landing due to the flight deck not
being nearly long enough for a normal take off; this is because for a plane to
take off it has to get a lot of air moving over its wings to generate lift. We
can decrease the plane’s minimum take off speed by acquiring additional airflow
over the deck by speeding through the ocean, into the wind, in the direction of
take-off. However, the primary take-off assistance comes from the carrier’s
four catapults, which allow the aircraft to get up to high speeds within a
short distance. Every catapult has two pistons that sit within two parallel
cylinders found underneath the deck, which are about as long as a football
pitch. A metal lug is positioned on the tip of each piston, and protrudes
through a narrow gap along the top of each cylinder. The cylinders are sealed
by the two lugs being extended through rubber flanges, which then extend though
a gap in the deck and attach to a small shuttle. For the aircraft to take off
the plane is positioned at the rear of the catapult. A towbar is attached on

Figure 4 – credit

the plane’s nose gear to a slot in the shuttle, and a
holdback is attached between the back of the wheel and the shuttle. On some
planes like the F-14 and F/A-18 fighter jets the holdback is built into the
nose gear, in others it is a separate part 3.
When the jet blast deflector has been raised behind the plane, the catapult
officer will open valves to fill the catapult cylinders with high pressure
steam from the carrier’s reactors. The steam provides the necessary force to propel
the pistons at high speed, which throws the pane forward to generate the
necessary lift for take-off. At first the pistons are locked into place and the
cylinders will build up pressure; however, this is monitored so that the pressure level is adequate for the
specific plane and deck conditions. If the pressure is too low, the plane won’t
get moving fast enough to take off and the catapult will throw the plane into
the sea. Whereas if the pressure is too high the sudden movement could break
the nose gear off. When the appropriate pressure level is reached in the
cylinders, the engines of the plane are blasted, the holdback allows the
engines to generate a significant thrust while being kept on the shuttle. When
the pistons are released, the force causes the holdback to be released, and the steam pressure
shoots the shuttle and plane forward. When the catapult reaches the end, the
tow bar pops out of the system and the plane. A diagram of this system is
illustrated in figure 4. The system which is completely driven by steam can
propel a 20,000-kg plane from 0 to 165mph in 2 seconds 3.

History of the Aircraft Carrier within the Royal Navy

The first realization that an aircraft
carrier was a possibility was on the 10th November 1910, when Eugene
Ely, flying a Curtiss pusher plane, took off successfully from an 83ft long
ramp raised above the forecastle of USS Birmingham whilst the ship was
stationary. 2 months later he successfully landed on a platform built over the
quarterdeck of the USS Pennsylvania 4. A year later in
England, Commander Oliver Schwann RN made the first successful take off from
water off Barrow-in-Furness flying an Avro biplane. 2 months later on the 10th
January 1912, Lieutenant C. R. Samson RN took off from an improvised platform
over the foredeck of HMS Africa whilst she was anchored. The first take-off
from a moving ship was in April 1912, on the pre-dreadnought HMS Hibernia, she
was moving at about 10.5 knots and the pilot took off using a ramp over the
ship’s forward guns 4. Due to these
initial experiences, the admiralty wanted to explore the potential of shipborne
aircraft for working with the fleet. HMS Hermes, an old protected cruiser, was
recommissioned in May 1912, for this purpose. She was equipped to operate as a
seaplane carrier, fitted with a canvas hanger which housed a seaplane; this was
mounted on a trolley for running on a railed launching ramp forward, whilst aft
another canvas shelter housed a second aircraft, which could be handled over
the side and take off from the water, as illustrated in figure 5 4. HMS Hermes began
the development of aircraft carriers within the Royal Navy, by being a success
while during the year’s fleet manoeuvres a subsequent 30 flights were
conducted, all but two being the short folder aircraft. Trial with the
launching platform were somewhat inconclusive, however unfortunately she was
sunk by a U boat at the outbreak of WW1 in October 1914.

In 1945, after both the first and second
world wars, the Royal Navy’s fleet was enormous due to the need for warships
and the imminent threat of danger. It was however very much old and worn out,
and Britain faced economic shortness and a reduced world role, therefore the
need to build the Royal Navy back up and designers and engineers needed to
respond to this ad new threats like novel threats which made the current ships
seem out of date. Therefore, the aircraft carrier fleet of the 1950’s and
1960’s was consisted of the HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal (figure 6), these were
able to carry larger and more aircraft than those prior to them 5. They were also to
have a larger fuel capacity, travel for longer distances and faster speeds. The
Royal Navy continued to develop their capabilities in terms of aircraft
carriers over the next few decades, through the development of launching and
landing gear and the power of their engines, and they are now in the process of
sea trials of their new aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Technical Development

As explained in a previous section, a
catapult is needed to launch the aircraft from the ship, therefore in 1916, in
response to a provisional specification for a compressed air-operated catapult of
a similar design to the US air-operated units. After being built and tested,
the Carey catapult was used on HMS Slinger (figure 7) and launched her first
manned aircraft on the 14th May 1918, she was a Fairey 127 4. In 1925, one of the
three Carey catapults constructed was installed on top of the hangar of the
seaplane carrier, HMS Vindictive. This proved to be the most successful during
the 1926 commission on the China station. One of the other Carey catapults embodied
modifications after the knowledge acquired from HMS Vindictive, and was
installed in HMS Resolution. The last was fitted in the M2 submarine. The Carey
catapult was designed to launch an aircraft of 3200-kg at a mean acceleration
of 2g. Instead of using steam like modern day, a 50/50 mixture of glycerine and
distilled water was displaced into the receiver cylinder attached to the side
of the catapult during the acceleration stroke. The motion was transmitted by
means of wire ropes and pulleys at a 3/1 multiplication ratio to the launch
trolley. At the same time as the Carey catapult was designed, the RAE design
(figure 8) by Mr P Salmon was entirely different, however would accelerate the
aircraft at the same speed as the Carey catapult. The catapult was made of a
girder structure in which was mounted so that the three or four tubes could
slide within each other. The innermost tube was attached at its forward end to
the launching trolley, which ran on wheels guided by rails. Each tube was made
smaller, and the annular space formed between the tubes had a piston fitted at
the rear end of the smaller tube and a bush at the front end of the larger
tube. The rest of the space was filled with fluid and the annular area was made
equal to the bore of the smaller tube. The propelling force came from
compressed air which acted on the first ram’s piston and the motion of this ram
was emitted to the other rams by the fluid and the final motion of the final
ram was that of the first multiplied by the number of rams, therefore if you increase the number of rams in the
system, this will increase the propelling force of the catapult 4. These two examples
of initial catapults used on aircraft carriers, illustrate how knowledge of engineering
and technical capabilities have improved over the last 100 years and that we
can always improve the sustainability and reliability of aircraft carriers.

As well as launching gear, the initial
designs of landing gear, were not dissimilar to that of todays. Around 1920, W.
A. D. Forbes supervised the development of a prototype arrester gear, however
the trials of this gear at the Isle of Grain did not prove successful and was
rejected. However, by the end of the decade the US Navy has developed his work into
an effective arrester gear. This led Forbes to develop a new gear, the Mark I,
which was built and tried in 1930, before being fitted into HMS Courageous
(figure 9). This gear consisted of a single transverse deck span which led to a
winch at each end, where the resistance was provided by hydraulically operated
friction breaks on the winches. Unfortunately, the gear was unsatisfactory as
it was impossible to obtain identical resistances on both winches, which
resulted in the wire tending to be pulled out more from one winch than the
other, which led to the slewing of the aircraft on the deck, which could be so
violent that it caused the tires to burst, therefore not being sustainable
because it is causing economic loss. Another problem that was encountered was
that as the wire pulled out the tension in it was constant and the aircraft was
subjected to an increasing retarded force. The aircraft was held up with its
tail high up as it came to a stop, and then the stored energy in the tensioned
wire jerked the aircraft backwards, which would slam the tail onto the deck
which could result in broken tail skids. After reconsidering the design of the
arrester gear from the lessons learnt from the faults of the Mark I, the design
of the Mark III Hydraulic gear was again introduced into HMS Courageous (figure
10) and was tested successfully I January 1933. It had been designed to give a
smooth build up of retarding force when the plane picked up the wire, the
maintenance of the maximum force that could be applied to the aircraft for as
long as possible and the steady diminution of the wire tension as the plane was
brought to rest, this desire performance was met by a simple hydraulic system,
which is very similar to that of todays 4. However, in modern
times we have made the system more efficient, safer and reliable, so as to
minimise fatalities.

Fitness for Purpose

Over the years engineers have had to overcome challenges to
make aircraft carriers fit for their purpose, by accommodating such factors:
holding aircraft safely, withstanding warfare, stable in high sea states, able to accommodate a large
crew and having enough room for ammunition and supplies. This has caused
aircraft carriers to become much larger and technically complex over the years
so as to adapt to these challenges.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth (figure 11) is the first and lead sip of the Queen Elizabeth class
for the Royal Navy. She is the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy of
284m length and the capability of carrying up to 40 aircraft. The ship
displaces 65,000 tonnes of water, and has the ability to travel 500 miles a
day, therefore being able to react quickly to deal with situations across the
globe. It was felt that the new aircraft carrier was needed to protect
Britain’s interests at home and abroad in the 21st century, by
having a flexible, modern and responsive force. Therefore, on the 25th
July 2007, the Defence Secretary announced the order for two new carriers, with
the outlook that the carriers would be the major part of it, and will enable
the UK to intervene appropriately, projecting power and also being a part of
other tasks like non-combat evacuations, delivering humanitarian aid and
disaster relief 6.
As well as being the largest aircraft carrier ever built in the UK, she is also
the largest engineering project in the UK which has involved construction at 6
shipyards nationwide and 100’s of companies in regions across the county. Therefore,
even though it is being built to aid the Royal Navy, it has economically
assisted many companies and businesses across the country from manufacturing
parts and then building different parts of the ship, and being given quite long
contracts, as the ship took around 2 years to construct. Also after the ship
has been commissioned it will need have a refit every few years so as to keep
it to a high standard, therefore some of these companies will be called on
again to aid in this. It is also predicted to have a life expectancy of around
50 years, meaning it will be a crucial part of the Royal Navy’s future. She
will be joined alongside by 820 and 809 naval air squadron, which brings the
Merlin Mk2 helicopter and the lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft 7.

for the catapults will be electric, which us both quiet and flexible. The
generators will be driven by gas turbines and/or diesel engines, which provide
power for the motors that drive the shafts. The large electrical capacity,
could spur the development of a new design of catapult in the coming future.
For short take off vertical land operations, the forward ski-jump is to be
approached either axially from the after marshalling area or at an angle from
the starboard side. This is a unique and new arrangement where between the two
islands is served by one of the two deck edge elevators (figure 12) 8. The HMS Queen
Elizabeth, is a massive asset for the future of the Royal Navy, and will show
other militaries the power that the Royal Navy obtains, especially during this
challenging time, where some governments are threating nuclear weapons.


While researching and writing my critical analysis, I have
discovered a lot about aircraft carriers work with aircraft, in terms of
launching and landing gear and how these have developed from early prototypes
to very reliable equipment now used in everyday life. However, that does not
stop the flight deck of an aircraft carrier being a very busy and dangerous
place, due to combining two very powerful machinery together: aircraft and
warships. In terms of the future, the Royal Navy already has another carrier
designed for the Queen Elizabeth class; HMS Prince of Wales (figure 13); this
will build the foundations of an even stronger and profound Navy. I can also
see the engine power of these ships swaying more to nuclear energy in the
coming years, due to the energy currently used being a finite resource.
Therefore, for sustainability reasons and also due to a nuclear reactor working
well for submarines for many years. In conclusion, I can see aircraft carriers
becoming a more crucial part for the Royal Navy due to it combining several
forces and the sheer power of what they can achieve.



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MoD, “GOV.UK,” 9 February 2015. Online.


R. Navy, “Royal Navy,” Online. Available:


B. Ireland, Aircraft Carriers of the world,
Leicestershire: Anness Publishing, 2012.