History of American carriers

Image of the USS Ranger

USS Ranger CV 4 at pier with Newport News workers in 1933.

In 1933, Newport News Shipbuilding would forever mark its place in world history by launching Ranger (CV 4), the first ship designed and built as an aircraft carrier from the keel up.

At only 14,500 tons, Ranger weighed far less than today’s 90,000-ton behemoths, but it carried the future of the shipyard and the Navy on its 700-foot flight deck.

In fact, the three carriers launched just a couple of years after Ranger helped turn the tide of World War II in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. While Yorktown (CV 5) and Hornet (CV 8)were lost during the war, Enterprise (CV 6) would become the most combat-decorated ship in the history of the Navy.

The Yorktown and Hornet names would be reborn in the next aircraft carriers built at the yard, the Essex-class. The shipyard would deliver nine of the 24 carriers to the Navy. That meant that every three months or so, the shipyard was launching a 33,000-ton carrier.

The shipyard would design its third class of aircraft carriers – the battle carrier – and build two of them. The 45,000-ton ships were the world’s largest carrier at the time. Midway (CV 41) and Coral Sea (CV 43) wouldn’t serve until the war was over, but marked the first of the post-war large carriers.

Image of the USS Enterprise

Enterprise under construction on Sept. 20, 1960. She was the first nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier.

Then came the age of the "Supercarrier." The 1950s and 1960s brought contracts for the Forrestal (CV 59), Ranger (CV 61), America (CV 66) and John F. Kennedy (CV 67) – designed to launch jet aircraft. Forrestal topped 1,000 feet in length and took on the familiar angled flight deck of today’s carriers. But the 1950s also brought nuclear power to the carrier fleet with the construction of Enterprise (CVN 65), launched in 1960. Named after CV 6, the second "Big E” would change the yard and the future of Navy aircraft carriers forever.

In 1972, Newport News Shipbuilding launched the Nimitz (CVN 68), the first of the Nimitz-class, ending the reign of boiler-powered ships and filling the shipyard’s dock for the next 30 years. All 10 ships in the class were designed, built and refueled in Newport News.

Today, the next era of aircraft carriers is being formed in our docks. The shipyard is building the first two ships of the follow-on class to Nimitz, the Gerald R. Ford-class. The first ship, Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), is expected to launch in 2013. Construction on the second ship, John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), began in 2011.

Model of the Gerald R Ford

Learn more about the Ford-class →