aircraft carrier, ship designed to carry aircraft and to permit takeoff and landing of planes. The carrier's distinctive features are a upper deck (flight deck) that is flat and sometimes sloped to function as a takeoff and landing field, and a main deck (hangar deck) beneath the flight deck for storing and servicing the aircraft. The aircraft carrier emerged after World War I as an experimentally modified cruiser; the first warship to be a dedicated carrier was Britain's H.M.S. Argus (1918). The first aircraft carrier built (1925) from the keel up as an aircraft carrier for the U.S. navy was the U.S.S. Saratoga.
The aircraft carrier remained an experimental and untested war vessel until World War II, when the Japanese destroyed or drove out of the East Asian waters the British, Dutch, and U.S. navies with carrier-borne aircraft. By 1942 the aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the major unit in a modern fleet, and in World War II it was indispensable in naval operations against a sea- or land-based enemy. The battle of the Coral Sea (1942) was fought by naval aircraft, and the two opposing fleets never came within gunshot range of each other.
After World War II aircraft carriers were enlarged and improved by the British and U.S. navies and became the nucleus of the standard naval combat formation. With the introduction of nuclear-powered carriers in the 1960s, extremely lengthy voyages became possible because such carriers do not need regular refueling. Modern U.S. supercarriers are the largest fighting ships afloat, with some 5,000 sailors and 80 aircraft, and use special catapaults to help launch their aircraft. Smaller carriers and amphibious assault ships may be equipped with short takeoff (and sometimes vertical landing) planes or helicopters.
See N. Polmar, Aircraft Carriers (1969); G. L. Pawlowski, Flat-Tops and Fledglings (1971); C. G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers (1978).
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