Aircraft carriers are mobile naval air bases on the sea, which allow takeoff and landing of military aircraft on their flat decks. The aircraft are stored under the deck, and are brought up or taken down with the help of elevators. Their landings are made safe with the help of arresting cables, and advanced techniques such as mirror landing systems.
These naval vessels are accompanied by various supporting vessels like destroyers, and carry missiles and modern weapons of warfare. They provide air cover to other warships, and can operate in international waters freely. They are, therefore, very crucial and deadly warships, operated by the naval forces of various countries all around the world.
Aircraft carriers actually evolved from the balloon-carrying vessels of the early 19th century, when the British Royal Navy launched kites from HMS Pallas. They were mainly used to drop propaganda leaflets and proclamations against Napoleon Bonaparte.
During World War I, the British, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Swedish navies launched hot air balloons for observation purposes. In March 1910, the French ship, Le Canard, was the first that led to the development of plane-carrying ships. However, the French ship La Foudre is known as the first seaplane carrier.
In 1913, a British merchant ship was converted to a seaplane carrier for experimental trials. The ship was called HMS Hermes. It was converted to a cruiser again, and later back to a seaplane carrier, before it was sunk by a German submarine in October, 1914. In 1913, the USS Mississippi became the first seaplane carrier for the US Navy.
During that time, several navies launched their seaplanes for collecting information. They were launched by a catapult and collected by crane from the water after landing. The actual changes that were necessary to make such vessels capable of aircraft takeoff and landing, came in around early 1920s.
During World War I
The Imperial Japanese Navy conducted the first strike from a carrier during World War I. It also had the distinction of being the first strike from a carrier against a land target. HMS Ark Royal was the first modern aircraft carrier, as it had a launch platform.
A squadron commander from the British Royal Navy became the first man to land on a moving ship, HMS Furious. Many more operations were conducted during the World War I, but World War II was the turning point in their advancement that witnessed great amelioration.
During World War II
During World War II, the British Royal Navy had seven aircraft carriers, and had an upper hand over Germany and Italy, who did not have one. However, their weakness was showcased, when German battle cruisers sunk HMS Glorious.
This weakness was, however, overshadowed by the HMS Illustrious, when it successfully launched a long-range strike on the Italian fleet at Taranto. The use of aircraft carriers by the British prevented the Italian Navy and German aircraft from dominating the Mediterranean region.
Japan had 10 of them in their fleet when they attacked the United States in 1942 at Pearl Harbor, which was a clear indication of their prowess in sea warfare. Their supremacy, however, diminished when a US carrier-borne aircraft sank the Japanese battleship Musashi, in 1945.
As technology advanced, jet-powered aircraft came into the picture, which had higher speed and weight, requiring a much greater effort in helping them land safely. If they did not land properly, it would often cause a lot of damage to the carrier and parked aircraft. Hence, some innovations like angled deck, optical landing, etc. were developed.
A British invention, the angled deck helps the aircraft land and take off on a carrier. This is helpful because while landing, if it misses the arrestor cables, the pilot just needs to power the engine to maximum in order to get airborne again. In this way, major accidents are avoided. Angled decks were first tested on HMS Triumph.
Another British invention, the optical landing system, is a gyroscopically-controlled concave mirror on the port side of the deck. In this system, a bright-orange light directed to the mirror, creates an orange ball on it, and is seen by the aviator. This position of the ball indicates the glide path. The glide path can be controlled by following the ball.
The US Navy built the first Forrestal-type, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Nuclear powered carriers increased the endurance of warships, which could now stay at sea longer than before.
Countries such as China, India, and Spain are building their own. At present, the US Navy has the highest number of aircraft carriers in service, making it the most feared navy in the world. These proved their prowess, when the USS Enterprise was sent to the Persian Gulf, in an effort to dismantle the terrorist camps in Afghanistan.