Naval Aviation Celebrates 100 Years of Innovation

November is a historic month for aircraft carriers. A little more than a decade after the Wright brothers took flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the U.S. Navy successfully integrated flight into its operations.   On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely launched the first aircraft from the deck of the USS Birmingham in Norfolk, Virginia, and marked the beginning of naval aviation. Five years later, on November 5, 1915, Cpt. Henry C. Mustin made the first catapult launch from a ship.

That spirit of innovation and drive to advance new technologies to enhance carrier capabilities has persisted since that first aircraft launch more than 100 years ago. It is the reason Aircraft Carrier Month is observed each November.

From greater digitization to unmanned aerial vehicles, the future of naval aviation is bright – and rapidly changing as new technology develops.

The next great naval innovation is here, represented by the next generation of aircraft carriers now entering the fleet – the Ford-class. 

The Ford-class carriers are larger, more efficient, and more powerful. The technology advancements implemented on these new carriers translates not only into greater capability, but also significant cost savings over the 50+ years of each carrier’s service life.

One key advancement is the carriers’ cutting-edge Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, EMALS, which replaces traditional steam-powered launch systems.  EMALS improves the carrier’s ability to launch aircraft quickly, using less energy, and with less wear and tear on aircraft over existing steam catapults. Estimates vary, but this technology is predicted to enable Ford-class carriers to increase the sortie generation rate (the number of aircraft able to be launched in a day of attached strike aircraft) by 33 percent over the Nimitz-class.

Since Cpt. Mustin made the first catapult launch from a ship in 1915, launch technologies have evolved as new aircraft have been introduced. EMALS represents a massive step forward for the future of naval aviation. 

More responsive systems like EMALS take carriers into the future by providing the ability to launch jets and prop aircraft currently in the fleet, as well as new aircraft coming into the air wing, including UAVs and the new, heavier F-35. Steam catapults simply can’t do what this new electromagnetic capability can – not now or in the years to come. 

Importantly, as with all new technologies, it’s worth noting that these capabilities are tested and proven, with latest tests conducted by the Navy certifying that systems such as the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), which are critical to the overall capabilities of the carrier, are ready to go. 

The Ford-class carriers also require fewer crewmembers – as many as 900 fewer. The carriers more efficient electric systems require less power, translating into real cost savings with greater output. Those cost savings are estimated at $4 billion during the carrier’s predicted 50-year service lives. These developments will help the U.S. Navy maintain its competitive edge as potentially hostile countries such as China increasingly look to the naval theatre as an important means of projecting their military power.

Technological developments such as those on the Ford-class carriers will help to keep our troops, our homeland, and our world safe. Right now, naval aviation is safer and stronger than any time before. At the same time, the U.S. Navy faces many challenges that will continue to test not only our fleet, but the men and women in uniform who serve our country.

Naval aviation technology has come a long way in the last 100 years because of a willingness and desire to keep pushing forward. It’s imperative that our leaders continue to recognize innovation and ensure that the U.S. Navy remains without equal, and an enduring force for global stability and security for the next 100 years.