Engines in Warfare: History of Aircraft Carriers

By: John Miller
Image: Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images/gettyimages

About This Quiz

For many centuries, countries at war have relied on their navies to defend their homelands and attack foreign coasts. Whether they were wooden warships or the kinds of ironclads featured in the American Civil War, there’s never been a substitute for sea power. But the 20th century witnessed the arrival of the most incredible sea weapons ever – the aircraft carrier. These hulking metal giants are the biggest ships ever built by humankind. But what do you really know about carriers at war?

The First World War started just as aircraft were taking to the skies en masse. As such, there were really no ships equipped to handle the demands of this industry. During the interwar years, though, everyone knew that carriers were going to be a thing. And they were right. Do you know which countries prioritized carrier construction in time for the Second World War? From the USS Yorktown to the Enterprise, some ships would smash enemy navies at Midway, Leyte Gulf and more.

Carriers are more than warships. They extend a navy’s power by hundreds or even thousands of miles thanks to the fighters and bombers they keep on deck. Strap yourself in for takeoff in this aircraft carrier quiz now!

The first aircraft carriers launched which sort of aircraft?

The very first aircraft carriers were nothing like today's behemoths. They were wooden ships that sent hot air balloons into the heavens.

What was the purpose of the hot air balloons that launched from the first aircraft carriers?

For many obvious reasons, hot air balloons do not make for great offensive weapons. However, the first carriers sent these balloons aloft in scouting missions, all the better to spy on enemies.

Which nation was the first to deploy a flat-deck carrier for airplanes?

Mighty Britain, with its history of naval power, was the first to build a flat-deck carrier. The HMS Argus, which was a converted merchant ship, served during both World Wars.

Just before WWI, carriers could launch planes. But they lacked which capability?

Sure, launching planes is a great advantage in wartime. But just prior to WWI, no ships actually had landing decks … so those planes had nowhere to go after their missions.

What's the primary purpose of aircraft carriers?

Aircraft carriers are incredible tools for expanding a military's air power range. The ships can send fighters aloft almost anywhere in the world.

Which country designed and built the first aircraft carrier from the ground up?

In 1922, Japan designed and built the first ship intended solely as an aircraft carrier. The Hosho was a pioneering ship that inspired a new direction in warships.

The very first full-blown aircraft carrier -- the Hosho -- was built in 1922. It took part in which famous battle?

The 1942 Battle of Midway was revenge for U.S. forces that suffered at Pearl Harbor. The world's first carrier, the Hosho, was there but only in a secondary role. She survived the entire war.

What do aircraft carriers do before launching their planes?

Carriers always turn into the wind before launching planes. Doing so ensures maximum airspeed for planes using very short runways … and with a slim margin for error.

What's special about the USS Enterprise, an American carrier?

The USS Enterprise is a ridiculously huge carrier, the longest ship ever built. Now out of service, she measures 1,123 feet long.

What is contained in a carrier's "superstructure"?

The tall fixture on a carrier's deck is called the superstructure. It's where the ship's control centers are housed, guiding navigation, weapons systems and much more.

What's a nickname for a carrier's superstructure?

It's called "the island." The island is where all of the ship's control centers are placed. And as such, enemy planes often target the island.

Which country gave rise to the first pilot ever to land on and take off from a ship?

In 1910, American Eugene Ely became the first pilot ever to land on and take off from the same ship. But it wasn't a carrier -- it was the battleship Pennsylvania.

During which war did aircraft carriers first do real battle?

World War II was a carrier war. In the Pacific Theater, especially, these enormous ships played an outsize role in history-altering battles.

In WWII, which country was the first to demonstrate the jaw-dropping potential of aircraft carriers?

On December 7, 1941, Japan left no doubt as to the power of its carriers. Fighters and bombers from its ships devastated Pearl Harbor and smashed much of the U.S. fleet.

Why didn't the HMS Argus, the world's first true carrier, see any battle in WWI?

Britain began restructuring the HMS Argus to become a true carrier during the Great War. But the conflict ended before she could see battle.

What was one problem for early jets taking off from aircraft carriers?

After WWII, jets became more common. But they were often too heavy for such short flight decks, meaning engineers needed new innovations.

After WWII, what innovation did British engineers use to launch heavy jets from carriers?

British engineers created steam catapults to launch jets from carriers. Release bars secure the plane to the flight deck until steam pressure escalates … and then, the plane whisks off, flying above the waves.

What's a "ski jump"?

Some carriers literally have a gently curved ramp to better facilitate jet takeoffs. These ramps are called "ski jumps."

Angled flight decks were introduced to accommodate which type of aircraft?

Angled flight decks slant away from the ship's centerline and create a slightly longer flight deck. This was a vital innovation for heavy jets, which need more space for landing.

During World War II, what was the nickname of the USS Enterprise, an American carrier?

Repeatedly, the Japanese though they'd sunk the USS Enterprise during WWII. But she kept showing up again, earning her the nickname of "The Grey Ghost."

Helicopters aboard carriers are often used for "ASW." What's that?

Jets aren't the only aircraft toted by these huge ships. They also carry helicopters, which are particularly useful in ASW -- anti-submarine warfare.

The very first carrier with a flat flight deck, the HMS Argus, served during both World Wars. What was her fate?

The first carrier, the HMS Argus, was a survivor. She made it through both wars, withstood a bomb hit, and was then scrapped in 1946.

What's a common nickname for the optical landing system that helps pilots land on aircraft carriers?

Many carriers use optical lighting systems to help pilots find the right angle for landing. The "meatball's" color changes as pilots change their approach.

How many carriers did Germany deploy during World War II?

Germany deployed a whole lot of U-boats in WWII. But the country didn't have a single aircraft carrier in its quest to dominate the world.

Just after WWII, what was the accident rate for U.S. planes attempting to land on carriers?

In the post-WWII era, U.S. pilots were fairly proficient at landings … but it was still a dangerous process, with an accident rate of 35 per 10,000 landings. Improved landing aids made the risks much lower.

The U.S. Navy was the first to build aircraft carriers that used which power source?

The USS Enterprise, built in 1958, was the world's first nuclear-powered carrier. She served for more than half a century, longer than any other American carrier.

Britain's HMS Argus was the world's first flat-deck carrier. What was one problem with her?

The HMS Argus had to be converted to a flat-deck layout. In doing so, she became dangerously top heavy and unstable at certain speeds, a fact that British engineers fought to correct.

What's a primary purpose of helicopter carriers?

Helicopter carriers obviously carry helicopters. They're specifically built for the rigors of short-range amphibious attacks.

Japan built the Hosho, the world's first true carrier. What does "Hosho" mean?

The Hosho was the first true carrier, built in 1922. In English, its name means, "Phoenix in Flight."

How many planes did Japan's Hosho carrier take along during its earliest missions?

The Hosho only carried about 15 aircraft while underway. This is far from the vast complement of fighters and other winged instruments of death stowed on modern carriers.

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