In 1946 the United States was the premier naval power in the world, and had just concluded a long and bloody war against the Imperial Japanese Empire that resulted in the utter annihilation of Japan's military. But for all its skill in defeating Japan and its demonstration of industrial prowess in producing several generations of warships of all sizes in only a few years, times were changing.
Carriers at the Dawn of the Jet Age
Nuclear weapons were owned only by the United States in 1946, but this was soon to change. Military theorists were already parsing the lessons learned in the Second World War and coming up with startling conclusions – one of which was that the era of the surface warship could well come to an end due to the threat of nuclear attack. It was difficult enough to stop an attack by a flight of piston engined bombers armed with garden variety bombs and torpedoes using the piston engine fighters operated by carriers in 1945. But nuclear weapons were big and could only be carried by massive aircraft like the B-29 Superfortress – which flew higher than many fighters could operate and was armed with as many machine guns as a flight of interceptors. Against such a threat, every carrier in the US arsenal was vulnerable to rapid and complete destruction.
Jet engines were the obvious answer to this dilemma, because they could power aircraft to speeds and altitudes sufficient to provide fleet defense. Development of jet aircraft capable of carrier operations began late in the Second World War, and in July of 1946 the first jet aircraft to take off from US Navy aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the US Navy its first jet fighter.
The McDonnell FH Phantom and the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt
Although the FH Phantom shares its name with the multi-service F4 Phantom that entered service two decades later, there is no connection between the jets' respective designs. In fact, the FH Phantom was a fairly unremarkable aircraft to look at, not significantly different in appearance from many late-war piston engine driven fighters in terms of its overall wing arrangement and fuselage shape. Unlike fighters that would soon follow in its tracks, the FH Phantom was not a lot faster than the best piston engine fighters and did not carry air to air missiles.
This airplane might seem not to provide that much of a capability boost at all – and this is a legitimate criticism. However the FH Phantom represents that all important moment in an engineering project: proof of concept. By successfully operating from the deck of a carrier, the jet aircraft proved that later, more refined models could be expected to succeed so long as they could meet some general requirements. And it took only months for its successors, the F2H Banshee and F9F Panther, to build upon the Phantom's success and further develop the carrier jet age.
Of course, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, platform for the first tests, was another story. She was selected because it was currently the largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy and actually in the world due to the destruction of the IJN Shinano of Japan during the war. Jet aircraft have always required additional distances to take off and land and the Roosevelt's size made it a safe test platform to use to determine the suitability of jet fighters for active naval operations. And while the first indications were quite good, tests on the Roosevelt (one of three members of the Midway Class) demonstrated that there were significant design challenges that would have to be overcome before jet fighters could be deployed across the entire fleet.
Challenges in Operating Jets from Aircraft Carriers
Naval aviation was never to be the same after this. Taking off from carrier decks (not to mention landing on them) requires highly trained pilots and exceptionally tough airframes, but more importantly aircraft carriers now had to be built to a completely different design.
Gone were the days of the straight deck flattop with dozens of aircraft rolling down the runway until they reached takeoff speed. The two dozen Essex class carriers, not to mention their predecessors of the Yorktown Class, were quickly rendered effectively obsolete in the jet age. Though their "Sunday Punch" was formidable in terms of propellor driven aircraft, they could operate fewer jets and took longer to launch and recover them. Jet engines allowed for heavier aircraft that required stronger decks to support their weight crashing down and better catapults to throw them into the sky. Both the catapults and decks of the Essex class were too weak, as designed, to handle the long term stress of jet operations. While they were heavily modified to better support jet operations, their original airwing of nearly a hundred aircraft had to be cut in half, making them more vulnerable.
Handling jet aircraft required more than just stronger flight decks (a requirement that incidentally solved the problem of where to locate an aircraft carrier's armor) and better catapults. All military aircraft require daily maintenance to keep them combat ready, but jet aircraft engines posed a particularly tricky problem. A prop engine is basically a specialized example of an internal combustion engine, but jet engines operate by completely different principles. Teardown and reconstruction took additional time and space and most importantly of all necessitated specialized testing facilities to make sure the engine was operating right before it was installed in a fighter. Turning on an internal combustion engine to test it is an entirely different process than flipping the switch on a jet engine that happens to spew flame and superheated exhaust out its back end.
During catapult launch an exhaust deflection system was needed to protect carrier deck crews from being burned. And while a spinning prop was clearly dangerous to anyone walking too close by, jet engine intakes actually pull air into them, leading to highly dangerous conditions for crewmembers who forget what kind of engine they're dealing with.
The Dawn of the Jet Age Gives Birth to the Supercarrier
Even the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and her sisters, USS Midway and USS Coral Sea were not ideal platforms for operating jet aircraft due to being designed with piston engines in mind. Though their size made them more adaptable than members of the Essex Class, they were still not ideal for the new age of carrier aviation. An entirely new design was needed, one that would take into account the vagaries of jet aviation. So in a sense the first jet to take off from a Navy aircraft carrier Roosevelt led directly to the construction of the supercarriers.
In 1955 the USS Forrestall, first of a class of four, became the first supercarrier in the world. Although by the time she was commissioned the FH Phantom was retired, she could handle the best naval jet fighters in operation at the time. Built with an armored, angled flight deck to handle landing operations and four catapults to provide for quick launches the Forrestall carried an airwing of 80+ aircraft and was unmatched in size and combat power until the next generation of supercarriers, the Kittyhawk Class, was introduced in the 1960s. The supercarriers would carry the spiritual successors of the jet that started an era, the FH Phantom; from the F-4 Phantom and the A-4 Skyhawk to the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A 18 Hornet the supercarriers operated the most cutting edge aircraft all over the world.
Sixty-five years after the first jet aircraft landed on a US carrier, the carrier battle group remains queen of the seas due to its airwing. A potent symbol of national power, the US operates eleven carriers and even traditional land powers like China are developing aircraft carriers. The jet age began at sea in 1946 and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition
All courtesy the United States Navy, accessed via Wiki Commons