NNS and American Aircraft Carriers

History of Carriers

Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the next-generation U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, prepares to begin its journey and the legendary USS Enterprise (CVN 65) prepares to finish. Enterprise is undergoing its inactivation after 51 years of service. The two ships side by side represent two eras of innovation, both starting at Newport News Shipbuilding.

In 1933, Newport News Shipbuilding would forever mark its place in history by launching Ranger (CV 4), the first American 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.

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

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

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.

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

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

Then came the age of the “Supercarrier.” The 1950’s and 1960’s 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 1950’s 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, NNS 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 follow-on class to Nimitz, the Gerald R. Ford-class.

Learn more about the Ford Class

Timeline

1920’s – 1930’s: Aircraft carrier concept provides a mobile base for land-based, tactical aircraft  to strike from the sea. The first three U.S. aircraft carriers were experimental conversions of conventional ship types to test viability.

1934: NNS builds USS Ranger (CV 4), the first American ship originally designed as an aircraft carrier.

1938 – 1941: NNS builds the Yorktown-class carriers; USS Yorktown (CV 5), USS Enterprise (CV 6) and USS Hornet (CV 8).

1942: All three Yorktown-class carriers win the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, putting the U.S. Navy on the offensive against the Japanese in WW II. USS Enterprise (CV 6) became the most decorated ship in U.S. Navy history, participating in all but two of the WW II carrier engagements.

1942 – 1946: NNS builds the first seven ships of the Essex-class Fleet Carriers. The 24-ship class, the largest U.S. aircraft carrier class built, become the WW II Fast Carrier Task Forces in the Pacific. The Essex-class carriers, with modernization, serve through the early 1970’s and the Vietnam War.

1945 – 1947: NNS builds two of the threeMidway-class “battle” carriers; USS Midway (CVB 41) and USS Coral Sea (CVB 43).  Both ships serve into the early 1990s.

1955: NNS builds the first super carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59). The four-ship class, including the NNS-built USS Ranger (CVA 61), are the first carriers built with angled landing areas on their flight decks and designed to operate jet aircraft.

1961: NNS builds the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier: USS Enterprise (CVN 65)

1964 – 1968: NNS builds aircraft carriers USS America (CV 66) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67).

1972 – 2008: NNS builds all ten Nimitz-class carriers.

2008 – present: NNS is currently building the Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers.

Nov. 17, 2013 - Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) takes its first journey, leaving the dry dock at Newport News Shipbuilding where it was constructed and moving a mile downriver to complete final outfitting and testing. Photo by Chris Oxley / NNS

Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) takes its first journey, leaving the dry dock at Newport News Shipbuilding where it was constructed and moving a mile downriver to complete final outfitting and testing.