Coming in for a landing

As if piloting the earliest flying machines wasn't tricky enough by itself, someone nine decades ago got the bright idea to try to use a ship as an airfield. Gone would be the relatively luxury of a grassy swath of land or a lengthy dirt strip that stayed where you expected it to stay. In its place would be a deck of moderate proportions (and perhaps crowded to boot) with a sharp dropoff on all sides and a marked tendency to rise, fall, and sway with the ocean's waves.

But who could resist the potential for air supremacy at sea? On March 20, 1922, the U.S. Navy took a big step in that direction when it commissioned the USS Langley as its very first aircraft carrier, with the designation CV-1. This photo is from October of that year, when flight operations began to and from the Langley. (Judging by the silhouette of the aircraft, it could be a Vought VE7-SF, the first plane to take off from the Langley.)

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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Broadside view

In contrast with the carriers that followed, the Langley had no superstructure -- that is, the flight deck was the uppermost part of the 11,500-ton ship. And the Langley wasn't born as a carrier. Rather, it was converted from the USS Jupiter, which had served as a collier from 1913 to 1920. Here, we see the Langley at anchor in about 1922, with an Aeromarine 39-B coming in for a landing.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

The coal-carrying Jupiter

This is the Jupiter in 1913, back when its job was to schlep coal and cargo, and long before its transformation into an aircraft carrier. But even then, it was an innovator, according to the U.S. Naval Historical Center: "The Navy's first surface ship propelled by electric motors, she was an engineering prototype for the turbo-electric propulsion system widely used in Navy capital ships" over the next two decades.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

And away it goes

And back to the Langley: the Naval Historical Center says this photo might be from catapult tests in 1925. At that time the carrier was at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, Calif., and the aircraft is a Douglas DT-2.

In the 1920s, "Langley was the platform from which Naval Aviators, guided by Captain Joseph M. Reeves, undertook the development of carrier operating techniques and tactics that were essential to victory in World War II," writes the Naval Historical Center.

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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Test pilot all suited up

Pictured here from October 1925 is a Vought VE-7, the same type of aircraft that made the first takeoff from the Langley. This, however, shows test pilot Paul King of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which three decades later would become NASA. King is wearing a fur-lined leather flying suit with an oxygen mask, perhaps for high-altitude testing.
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Photo by: NASA / Caption by:

A crowded hangar

Below the flight deck of the Langley was the ship's hangar, crowded with planes. According to the Naval Historical Center, the large aircraft at bottom right is a Douglas DT torpedo bomber, minus its wings. The planes marked 2-F-8 and 2-F-9 are Vought VE-7s. This is from sometime in the 1920s.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Under way

Here's another view of the flight deck, with Vought VE-7 aircraft lined up. This is from 1928, with the Langley under way off San Diego. By this time, the U.S. Navy had commissioned two more aircraft carriers -- the USS Lexington and the USS Saratoga, both converted from battle cruisers. The first ship designed and built from the keel up as a carrier would come a bit later -- the USS Ranger, commissioned in 1934.

The Langley was about 542 feet long and had a beam of 65 feet. It carried a crew of 468 and could move along at 15 knots.

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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Crowded flight deck

The flight deck of the Langley is crowded with more than 30 planes in this May 1928 photo, with the ship moored at Pearl Harbor. The Langley could carry a maximum of 55 aircraft.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

View from above

Here, the Langley's flight deck is a little less crowded, with two dozen aircraft. The carrier is at anchor in the Panama Canal Zone in March 1930.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Seaplane tender

Being first doesn't mean lasting forever. By the end of 1936, the Langley was being converted from a carrier to a seaplane tender, a process that was completed in February 1937. This photo from that year shows the ship in that new role, reclassified as AV-3 but retaining the Langley name.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Abandon ship

It was as a seaplane tender that the Langley finally saw wartime action, with duties that included helping out in antisubmarine patrols by the Royal Australian Air Force in early 1942. A little more than a month later, on February 27, the end came after the Langley took five hits from Japanese bombers: "Aircraft topside burst into flames, steering was impaired, and the ship took a 10 degree list to port," says the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, via the U.S. Navy's Web site. "Langley went dead in the water as in-rushing water flooded her main motors. At 1332 the order to abandon ship was passed. The escorting destroyers fired nine 4-inch shells and two torpedoes into the old tender to insure her sinking. She went down about 75 miles south of Tjilatjap [on the island of Java] with a loss of 16."

This photo shows the Langley being abandoned that day.

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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Scout cruiser with flight deck

The Langley may have been the U.S. Navy's first official aircraft carrier, but it wasn't the first ship with a flight deck installed. In fact, the very first flight of an aircraft from aboard a warship occurred more than a decade before the Langley was commissioned. That honor went to the USS Birmingham, a scout cruiser, on November 14, 1910, when daredevil pilot Eugene Ely took off in a Curtiss pusher aircraft. The experiment aboard the Birmingham came together quickly, in less than two weeks, according to the Naval Historical Center: "Designed by Naval Constructor William McEntree and paid for with a few hundred dollars of [wealthy aviation enthusiast John Barry] Ryan's money, this structure sloped down five degrees from the cruiser's bridge to her bow to provide a gravity-assisted 57-foot takeoff run."
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Eugene Ely's takeoff

After taking off from the Birmingham, Ely traveled 2.5 miles. The flight might have lasted longer, except that the launch started with a low point -- "The Curtiss briefly touched the water, throwing up enough spray to damage its propeller, and vibrated heavily as it climbed," writes the Naval Historical Center. "Ely, a non-swimmer, realized that a quick landing was essential. He touched down on nearby Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air."

This photo shows Ely's landmark takeoff.

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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Landing on the Pennsylvania

Two months after that debut takeoff, Ely made the first airplane landing on a warship -- in this case, the armored cruiser Pennsylvania -- again using the Curtiss pusher biplane. The January 18, 1911, landing took place at an air meet in San Francisco.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Sandbags and ropes

With no room for taxiing to a gradual stop -- the Pennsylvania's temporary platform measured 120 feet by 30 feet -- the Navy had to come up with some other way to bring the aircraft to a halt. That method involved sandbag-weighted ropes stretched across the deck and hooks attached to the plane's landing gear. As a backup, canvas awnings were rigged around the deck.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:

Eugene Ely and the Curtiss pusher biplane

That's Ely and his Curtiss pusher biplane on the Pennsylvania, getting ready to take off again and return to land. Alas, flying in those days was a very risky business, and Ely did not survive the year. He died in a plane crash in Macon, Ga., on October 19, 1911. In 1933, he was recognized posthumously with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
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Photo by: Naval History & Heritage Command Photographic Department / Caption by:
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