Thursday, March 4, 2021

USS Langley (CV 1): Firsts and an Evolving Mission (Part 2)


USS Langley (CV 1) seen in 1924. Note the crowded and narrow flight deck. (National Naval Aviation Museum)

By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

Ever since the days of the Spanish Armada, warships had been designed to do one thing: pound one another into wreckage with a battery of the largest caliber weapons that could be accommodated aboard. There had, simply put, never been a ship quite like an aircraft carrier in the world’s navies. No one knew what, if any, role such a new vessel could play in the fleet. Was it a scout? A spotter? An offensive weapon in its own right? It would fall to the crew of the new Langley, sporting hull number CV 1, to literally write the book on aircraft carrier operations for the United States Navy.
Vought VE7s take off from Langley in 1927 (Wikimedia Commons)

An Aeromarine 39B plane comes in for landing on Langley's flight deck in 1922. Note no real catwalk, just sailors using safety nets as such. (Naval History and Heritage Command

As an experimental vessel, Langley would be the scene of a number of firsts for the Fleet. The era of the aircraft carrier for the US Navy began when a Vought VE7 launched from its decks on October 17, 1922. While not the first time a plane had flown from an American naval vessel, it was the first time it had been done from a ship designed for that purpose. Nine days after this, an Aeromarine 39B safely landed aboard, marking the first time a plane had landed on the carrier. Langley would officially join the fleet in January 1923 and spend the rest of that year touring the East Coast from Norfolk to Bar Harbor, Maine, demonstrating the Navy’s new weapon to admiring crowds. Many came simply to watch the aircraft take off and land on the vessel’s flight deck.

Visitors look at a Curtiss F6C fighter plane aboard Langley in October 1926 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Langley would join the Pacific Fleet in 1924, participating in the annual fleet exercises until the middle 1930s, during which experiments in everything from flight deck operations to mock attacks on the battleline of capital ships would be conducted. It even found time to play a starring role in the silent film The Flying Fleet released in 1929. Sadly, newer and larger ships such as Lexington (CV 2), Ranger (CV 4), and Enterprise (CV 6) soon relegated Langley to an auxiliary role.
Langley (bottom) dwarfed by USS Saratoga (CV 3- middle) and USS Lexington (CV 2-top) at Bremerton, Washington around 1930. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Since the end of World War One, Imperial Japan was seen as the most likely future opponent of the US Navy. The vast reaches of the Pacific presented a conundrum in the pre and early aviation era: how does one locate the enemy fleet? The answer was seaplanes: these amphibious aircraft and their accompanying tender could turn any sheltered tropical lagoon into a fully functioning airbase in a matter of hours. No longer capable of operating in its designed role, Langley became an ideal candidate for conversion into a seaplane tender thanks to a roomy design and already installed aircraft maintenance and operation facilities.

Langley seen after conversion to a seaplane tender in 1937. The ship was re-designated with the hull number AV 3. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
This conversion took place at Mare Island California between October 1936 and February 1937. The new tender, with hull number AV 3, would spend the next two years operating out of various ports on the West Coast, scouting for the fleet’s battleships and cruisers. But fate had a curve ball in store for the little tender. War clouds were gathering on the horizon and Langley would soon face its sternest test.

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