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CV-1 Langley

Langley (CV-1) was the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier. The Navy collier Jupiter (AC-3) was converted to an aircraft carrier at Norfolk Navy Yard over a period of two years from March 1920 to March 1922. The ship was intended to provide operational testing and development of future designs. There were initially plans to convert a second ship to serve as a training carrier but this was not funded. Instead came the recommendation that the collier Jupiter be converted into a 'carrier' in order that the claims of the naval aviators might be given a demonstration.

Jupiter did not possess all the characteristics that would have made her an ideal aircraft carrier, but she did have many advantages. Commissioned April 7, 1913 as fleet collier No. 3, she, with the Neptune, carried the first Naval Aviation detachments to France in World War I. At war's end, she was scheduled for retirement.

At the time she was selected for conversion to an aircraft carrier, her advantages outweighed her disadvantages. The ship was slow and might prove a drag to a fast-moving fleet. But she did have the necessary length to permit planes to fly off from a specially prepared deck. Her hold spaces were very large, with high head room in them, a difficult thing to find in any ship. She had larger hatches leading to these holds than most ships, a factor permitting the stowing of the largest number of planes. Jupiter was electricly-driven, the first of a few ships in the current fleet to be so powered. Her top speed was a comparatively slow 14 knots. One of the clinching arguments for her conversion was her small crew requirement.

With hostilities over, non-regular Navy men were eager to continue civilian activities and were leaving service in large numbers. Jupiter sailed to Norfolk Navy Yard where the conversion work was accomplished. Initially it was thought she could be converted cheaply - that was a mistake, however. In any event, she cost less when completely converted than any other ship that might have been selected.

It was thought she could be converted quickly - that was another mistake. The war was over and labor, contractors and material men were taking a breathing spell. The recommendation for her conversion was made by the General Board of the Navy early in 1919; Congress appropriated the money on 11 July 1919; she was promised for January 1921; she was not. Jupiter's designation was changed to CV on July 11, 1919; she went into the yard for conversion March 1920, and was commissiond USS Langley (CV-1) on March 20, 1922, at Norfolk, VA.

Her conversion was very primitive by today's standards -- her coaling masts were cut down and converted to trusses to support the flight deck. Her original bridge and superstructure were retained but they sat beneath the flight deck which was obstacle free. As completed she had a single funnel protruding from the side of the flight deck; a second funnel was added soon after her completion.

In the yards, all the coal-handling gear was removed from the collier and a flight deck, 534 feet long and 64 feet wide, was installed. At first, it was planned that this deck would be completely free of obstruction, and so it was in the Langley. But in the Sara and Lex, this view was changed in favor of an island placed on the starboard side. This side was selected for the island's location because it provided a better view of buoy markers in narrow channels. It also facilitated left-hand turns which pilots preferred, owing to the torque of the turning propeller. The island design offered the only practical solution to problems predicated by smoke discharge, navigation, fire control, and communications.

An elevator was installed to lift planes from the assembly and storage deck to the flight deck. A palisade was built around this elevator to provide a windbreak, protecting the planes and men while the aircraft were being assembled. For the hoisting of seaplanes, two cranes with large outreach were installed on the hangar deck, one on either side of the ship. Traveling cranes were installed beneath the flight deck for hoisting planes from the hold and for transferring them fore and aft to the ship spaces and elevator.

The collier's firerooms were located well aft. This permitted an easier handling of gasses to guarantee a minimum interference with planes when they touched down on her deck. She had ample space for machine, carpenter, metal and wing repair stowage; spare parts, spare engines, and shops; for gasoline and lubricating oil aircraft ammunition. Her living quarters appeared to be a bit crowded, but sufficient for the work to be undertaken.

Smoke pipe plans called for the provisions of a short smoke pipe on each side of the ship, clear of the flight deck. They were interconnected so that smoke could be discharged on the lee side. One of the smoke pipes was designed to hinge downward when considered necessary to discharge near the water; the second, to discharge smoke downward through water spray.

The Langley arresting gear depended on an athwartship retarding force while the British gear had depended on air resistance together with the resistance set up by fore and aft cables. The Langley wires were suspended about ten inches above the deck. They were not entirely satisfactory, but were used, with some modifications, in the Lexington and Saratoga until 1929. When Langley eventually went to sea in September 1922, she had an arresting gear installed.

Langley's pilots, who loosened teeth and flattened noses against their instrument panels while negotiating the hazards of landing on the Langley's small flight deck and crude arresting gear. Planes went overboard, piled up in the crash barrier, stood on their noses and came apart. [There were few fatalities.] But the science of carrier operations was developed as a monument to these pilots' perseverance. Arresting gear and catapult systems were tried, modified, improved upon; pilots qualified for carrier landings and take-offs. In March 1925, she entered her first fleet exercise, Fleet Problem No. Five, off the lower coast of California. Scouting flights from the carrier now became standard procedure and so impressed official observers that they recommended the completion of USS Saratoga and USS Lexington be speeded up.

Langley conducted extensive trials and regularly took part in fleet exercises. She was quickly rendered obsolete by Wasp (CV-7) in 1936 and converted to a seaplane tender in 1936-37. The forward third of flight deck cut away to create a seaplane handling area and her displacement was reduced to 11,500 tons.

On 27 February 1942 she was caught by Japanese dive bombers off Java and sunk.

Samuel Pierpont Langley

It was Samuel Langley's fate to experience the most spectacular and publicized failure to fly in all aviation history. On Dec. 8, 1903, in full view of the Washington press corps, his "Great Aerodrome" broke up and plunged into the Potomac River, nearly killing its pilot, Charles Manly. It was the Aerodrome's second public crash -- the first had been two months before, on Oct. 7, when, in the words of a Washington Post reporter, it "slid into the water like a handful of mortar." The two accidents did much to discredit the quest for flight -- ironic, since the last of these accidents occurred less than two weeks before the Wrights would triumphantly fly at Kitty Hawk, fulfilling a dream of centuries. It was a fate Langley did not deserve, for he was a brilliant (if largely self-taught) scientist, a distinguished astronomer, and the secretary of the most prestigious scientific organization in the United States, the Smithsonian Institution.

Langley had started off like many researchers in the late 19th century, beginning with studies of birds, and then progressing to small models and whirling arm test rigs. But then he departed significantly from them, developing a series of small and powerful steam engines and using these engines to power larger models that he called "Aerodromes." These models had a generally similar configuration: two braced wings placed one behind the other, with stabilizing cruciform tail surfaces (that is, when seen from the back, the surfaces were arrayed in a cross (+) arrangement).

Samuel P. Langley never held a military rank, nor piloted even a civilian airplane. Even though he was one of the pioneers of flight in America, Langley never saw his dreams fulfilled. He's remembered as one of the most unlucky trail blazers in flight history.

Langley was born in Roxbury, Mass., in August 1834. He was interested in astronomy from boyhood, thanks to a telescope brought home by his merchant father. He and his brother John would sit with their eyes glued to the eyepiece, studying everything from the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument to observations of the night sky. They later built their own telescope, then many more.

Langley's formal education began in the Boston Latin School and ended with his graduation from Boston High School in 1851. For 14 years after his graduation from high school, Langley worked as an engineer and architect. In 1864, he and his brother traveled throughout Europe. When he returned to the United States in 1866, he was appointed assistant professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and placed in charge of the small observatory there. In 1867 he accepted a position at Western University in Pennsylvania (now known as the University of Pittsburgh) as a professor of physics and astronomy and director of university's Allegheny Observatory. He remained there for 20 years.

During his later years at the observatory, Langley became interested in aeronautical research. As a result of his experiments, he concluded that air resistance was not as great as Newton had said it was and that existing engines could overcome it and sustain heavier-than-air flight. His reports were published by the Smithsonian Institution and awakened the imaginations of others, including Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Shortly after beginning his experiments in aerodynamics, Langley was appointed assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in charge of the library and international exchanges. Within the year, Secretary Spencer F. Baird died, and Langley assumed leadership of the Smithsonian.

Despite the responsibilities of his new office, Langley continued with his aeronautical experiments. He built and flew rubber-band-powered models in Washington. After constructing about 40 models, he began to experiment with miniature engines. Soon he was testing power-driven models with wingspans of about 14 feet.

The race to be the first to fly became a competition, but Langley had no concern about the commercialization of his product. He just continued with is work. By the end of 1893, he was conducting flight tests from atop a houseboat moored near Quantico on the Potomac River. None of them flew. He kept trying.

Langley set out to build a series of large working models of steam-powered flying machines he called "aerodromes," and, in 1896, became the first to build heavier-than-air machines capable of sustained (although uncontrolled) flight. Langley built two unmanned craft, each of which had two sets of 14-foot (4.3-meter) wings, weighed 26 pounds (11.8 kilograms), and were powered by steam engines.

After numerous failures, on May 6, 1896, his luck changed. He launched Aerodrome Number 5 out over the Potomac. It rose gracefully in a sweeping circle. It circled until its fuel gave outand then settled gently into the water. He fished the model out of the water, dried it off and launched it again. It flew.

On Nov. 28, 1896, Aerodrome Number 6 was brought aboard the houseboat. It flew for 4,300 feet at a speed of 30 miles per hour. Had Langley ceased his work at this point he would already have done enough to secure a prominent place in the history of flight.

Langley felt his work was finished, but it was impossible to quit. He and the others pioneering with flight were urged to develop aircraft large enough to fly a man, primarily because the United States was at war with Spain and military leaders were concerned with improving aerial observation. With the help of his assistant Charles M. Manly (and a $50,000 grant from the War Department), he designed an engine that developed sufficient horsepower to life a full-sized aircraft.

He pressed on with development of a larger manned machine, the Great Aerodrome, built in response to the Spanish American War. Propulsion proved a major challenge, but was resolved by Stephen Balzer and Charles Manly, who furnished a very powerful and indeed remarkable engine producing 52 horsepower.

Langley, unfortunately, failed to appreciate that one could not simply "scale up" the structural design of the larger machine on the basis of his smaller models, and so the resulting airplane was extraordinarily weak. It was this poor structure that doomed it on its two flight attempts. As well, Langley (as did many pioneers) overemphasized lift and propulsion at the expense of control and utility. The Great Aerodrome lacked an adequate flight control system, and even the most rudimentary form of landing gear, being intended, instead, to be set down in the Potomac, like his smaller models.

On July 14, 1903, the completed machine was brought aboard the houseboat. It was 52 feet long with a 48-foot wingspan. This aircraft had a total weight (with pilot) of 850 pounds (386 kilograms). After more tinkering, the launch was finally scheduled for early morning, Oct. 7, 1903. Manly, who volunteered as pilot, stepped aboard. Langley had hoped to attempt his launch in privacy, but the Potomac was full of boats, including a couple filled with Smithsonian staff.

The engine started, purred smoothly. The retaining cable was cut. The huge craft shot from the catapult and plunged directly into the Potomac. Manly swam back to shore. Maj. M.M. Macomb, who represented the War Department at the trial flight, blamed the failure on the catapult, which did not launch the aircraft properly. Langley agreed and, more confident than ever, planned a second trial. Some authorities believe that if his catapult had not failed, Langley would have been the first to achieve sustained flight in a manned heavier-than-air machine.

On Dec. 8, 1903, they tried again, watched closely by even larger crowds. Manly climbed back into the craft. The cable was cut. The craft accelerated, seemingly under perfect control. The forward wings lifted and began to rise into the air. Just as the aerodrome was leaving the catapult, there was a loud crashing, tearing sound and the rear wings crumpled and twisted. The craft tumbled into the water again. It was the last attempt and it failed.

The official report by the War Department once again blamed the failure on the launching devise, but it didn't matter. Nine days later, man's first powered heavier-than-air flight was made by Orville Wright over the sands of Kitty Hawk. The competition was over.

The press of the country deluged Langley with ridicule. Langley died in Aiken S.C., on Feb. 27, 1906, and the newspapers that ridiculed him so severely now said he died of a broken heart. He was 71 years old.

Despite the failure of the Great Aerodrome, Langley must be counted among the great pioneers of flight. As Wilbur Wright wrote after Langley's death in 1906, "The knowledge that the head of the most prominent scientific institution of America believed in the possibility of human flight was one of the influences that led us to undertake the preliminary investigation that preceded our active work. . .he advanced the art [of aviation] greatly by his missionary work and the inspiration of his example. . .His work deserved neither abuse nor apology." Langley Air Force Base, VA, is named in his honor. NASA's Langley Research Center was established in 1917 as the nation's first civilian aeronautics laboratory.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:37:30 ZULU