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America’s First Aircraft Carrier: USS Langley and the Dawn of U.S. Naval Aviation

02 Apr 24

373 pages

Professor Andrew Lambert

King’s College London

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know why the USN took the lead in carrier aviation between 1919 and 1939, and how the next revolution in naval affairs might emerge. The USN had flown from ships before the RN, it observed Grand Fleet aviation in 1917-18, and had access to British naval architect Stanley Goodall. The USN also won the battle against the independent air force lobby. Converting a large naval collier, rendered surplus due to the rapid shift to oil fuel, into the USS Langley provided the Navy with a solid reliable, and cheap to run platform for trials, testing, and training.

The ship would be modified, developing equipment and techniques for deck operations that would be used for decades, while enabling ever larger numbers of aircraft to be flown and recovered. Accidents were rare, and very few proved fatal. The Langley qualified a generation of naval aviators, many of whom held commands in WWII, among them Fleet Admiral Ernest J King. The resumé of post Langley careers at the end of the book is striking. By the mid 1920s the USN had qualified 4,000 pilots. Langley became a key element in Fleet Exercises, with strikes on the Panama Canal an obvious strategic target. Air spotting for the big guns soon gave way to torpedo and dive bombing, and fighter air defence. This unlikely looking ship delivered the USN a capable naval air arm for the big carriers Lexington and Saratoga (named for victories over the British it should be noted) which entered service in the late 1920s. Whole squadrons transhipped, along with Captains – the USN stipulated that only aviators could command carriers. Aviation became a critical competency. In contrast to the inter-war RN, the USN was largely free from overseas commitments, aside from the occasional disaster in Latin America, and could concentrate on trials, training and exercises, a reality that stands out from the chronology of Langley’s career. The forceful development of ever larger air groups in the 1920s rapidly overtook the tiny complements embarked on British carriers.  America bought more planes, and trained more people, because the USN cared about naval aviation. The RAF did not.

As new carriers entered service in the mid 1930s Langley was converted into a flying boat and seaplane tender. It was lost in early 1942 ferrying army fighters to the Dutch East Indies, sunk by Japanese Navy land-based bombers. This ship demanded Winkler’s thorough, incisive biography because it and the people who served on board, enabled a revolution in naval affairs. This is a history book for contemporary revolutionaries, engaged with new technologies, and new ideas. How does the future break through into the fleet? Not that the inter-war USN got everything right. An obsession with airships cost lives, money and impetus, but it made sense in the early 1920s, when they provided the only prospect of trans-oceanic air operations.