USS Langley CV-1

The First U.S. Aircraft Carrier

The USS Langley CV-1


USS Langley CV-1

The First U.S. Aircraft Carrier

I would encourage you to first read the Washington Naval treaty to understand the reasoning behind the use of existing hulls and laid keels:

The USS Langley CV-1

If you are an aviator or not and have ever walked the deck of an aircraft carrier you would be amazed at the size of the modern day flight deck. Certainly you would also cringe at the thought of taking off and landing on the narrow deck of the USS Langley. The fact is, Landing on a small or large deck in the middle of an ocean is a “pucker factor of 15” and one not many want to experience. Naval aviation is takes a special breed of men and women to be able to land on aircraft carriers. I assure you…

The USS Langley was the first of a long line of Modern day Marvels, Known as Aircraft Carriers.

In 1922 The USS Langley became the first aircraft carrier to see service with the US Navy. She was a conversion from a collier ship. (a collier ship: a collier is a bulk cargo ship designed to carry coal, especially for naval use by coal-fired warships. Coaling at sea was critical to navies and speed of coal transfer was an important metric of naval efficiency).

The Collier ship USS Jupiter AC-3 was decommissioned in 1920 and after Conversion Renamed and Commissioned USS Langley CV-1 March 20, 1922 Norfolk Navy Shipyard in Virginia. Later commencing a wide variety of aviation tests and to sail with both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets in doing so. She was find her fate later as a seaplane tender in 1936. In 1942 the USS Langley CV-1 was sunk by the Japanese after being scuttled by her crew 65 nautical miles from Java Coastline.

At the time The Jupiter’s keel was laid on 18 October 1911 at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California; the U.S. president at that time, William H. Taft, attended the ceremony.  The Jupiter was to be launched on 14 August 1912 under Commander Joseph M. Reeves.

USS Jupiter (AC-3), was also the U.S. Navy’s first electrically propelled ship. Conversion of another collier was planned but canceled when the Washington Naval Treaty required the cancellation of the partially built Battlecruisers Lexington and Saratoga, freeing up their hulls for conversion to the aircraft carriers CV-2 and CV-3 . The USS Langley was named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American aviation pioneer.

After successfully passing her sea trials, The Jupiter took on a United States Marine Corps detachment at San Francisco, CA, and reported to the Pacific Fleet at Mazatlán Mexico on 27 April 1914, bolstering U.S. naval strength on the Mexican Pacific coast in the tense days of the Veracruz crisis. She remained on the Pacific coast until she departed for Philadelphia on 10 October. En route, the collier steamed through the Panama Canal on Columbus Day, the first vessel to transit it from west to east.

Prior to America’s entry into World War I, she cruised the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico attached to the Atlantic Fleet Auxiliary Division. The ship arrived at Norfolk, Virginia on 6 April 1917, and, assigned to the Naval Overseas Transport Service, interrupted her coaling operations by two cargo voyages to France in June 1917 and November 1918. The first voyage transported a naval aviation detachment of 7 officers and 122 men to England. It was the first U.S. aviation detachment to arrive in Europe and was commanded by Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, who became Langley’s first executive officer five years later.  Jupiter was back in Norfolk on 23 January 1919 whence she sailed for Brest, France on 8 March for coaling duty in European waters to expedite the return of victorious veterans to the United States. Upon reaching Norfolk on 17 August, the ship was transferred to the West Coast. Her conversion to an aircraft carrier was authorized on 11 July 1919, and she sailed to Hampton Roads, Virginia on 12 December, where she decommissioned on 24 March 1920.

As the first American aircraft carrier, Langley was the scene of several seminal events in U. S. naval aviation. On 17 October 1922, Lt. Virgil Griffin was the pilot of the first plane ( a Vought VE-7) launched from The USS Langley deck. Though this was not the first time an airplane had taken off from a ship, and though Langley was not the first ship with an installed flight deck, this one launching was a monumental task for the modern U.S. Navy.

The era of the aircraft carrier was born introducing into the navy what was to become the vanguard of its forces in the future. With Langley underway nine days later, Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Corcelles Chevalier made the first landing in an Aeromarine 39B. On 18 November, Commander Whiting was the first aviator to be catapulted from a carrier’s deck.

An unusual feature of Langley was provision for a carrier pigeon house on the stern. Pigeons had been carried aboard seaplanes for message transport since World War I, and were to be carried on aircraft operated from Langley. The pigeons were trained at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard while Langley was undergoing conversion. As long as the pigeons were released a few at a time for exercise, they returned to the ship; but when the whole flock was released while Langley was absent, the pigeons flew south and roosted in the cranes of the Norfolk shipyard. The pigeons never went to sea again and the former pigeon house became the executive officer’s quarters; but the early plans for conversion of Lexington and Saratoga included a compartment for pigeons. Within the ranks the “XO” got a lot of “teasing” over that, you can bet they all still do.

By 15 January 1923, Langley had begun flight operations and tests in the Caribbean Sea for carrier landings. In June, she steamed to Washington, D.C., to give a demonstration at a flying exhibition before civil and military dignitaries. She arrived at Norfolk on 13 June, and commenced training along the Atlantic coast and Caribbean which carried her through the end of the year. In 1924, Langley participated in more maneuvers and exhibitions, and spent the summer at Norfolk for repairs and alterations, she departed for the west coast late in the year and arrived San Diego, California on 29 November to join the Pacific Battle Fleet.

In 1927, the USS Langley was at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. For the next 12 years, she operated off the California coast and Hawaii engaged in training fleet units, experimentation, pilot training, and tactical-fleet problems. The Langley was featured in the 1929 silent film about naval aviation The Flying Fleet.

The USS Langley was an “odd looking Duck” in comparison to what we think of as a carrier. Certainly after they started building the other carriers the Langley immediately stood out like a sore thumb. Just five year later, the Lexington CV-2 and Saratoga CV-3 were already commissioned and floating “Birdfarms” (as the crew likes to call them). The big difference that one can notice right away, the Langley has no “Super-Structure” or Island rising midway down one side of the deck like a control tower. Among many other things that is certainly what it is. Not just for controlling the aircraft but indeed for the control of the entire ship.

On 25 October 1936, she put into Mare Island Navy Yard, California for overhaul and conversion to a seaplane tender. Though her career as a carrier had ended, her well-trained pilots had proved invaluable to the next two carriers,

The USS Lexington CV-2 Built by Bethlehem Steel Corp., at the Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts and was planned to be commissioned next however the as it happened USS Saratoga CV-3 Built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New Jersey ended up being commissioned first on November 16, 1927. Maybe a miscommunication or perhaps a mistake but certainly there was a matter of competition involved in this apparent faux-pas.

Now USS Langley AV-3 completed yet another conversion in February 1937 and assigned hull a new designation number (AV-3) and assigned to the Aircraft Scouting Force and tending operations out of Seattle, Washington, Sitka, Alaska, Pearl Harbor, and San Diego, California. She departed Atlantic Fleet and assume duties with the Pacific Fleet. Arriving at Manila Bay on September 24th 1939.

Upon entry of the U.S. into WW II, The USS Langley was anchored off Cavite, Philippines. On 8 December, following the invasion of the Philippines by Japan, she departed Cavite for Balikpapan, in the Dutch East Indies. As Japanese advances continued, Langley departed for Australia, arriving in Darwin on 1 January 1942. She then became part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) naval forces. Until 11 January, Langley assisted the Royal Australian Air Force in running anti-submarine patrols out of Darwin.

Langley went to Fremantle, Australia to pick up Allied aircraft and transport them to Southeast Asia. Carrying 32 P-40 fighters belonging to the Far East Air Force‘s 13th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional). At Fremantle Langley and Sea Witch, loaded with crated P-40s, joined a convoy designated MS.5 that had arrived from Melbourne composed of the United States Army Transport Willard A. Holbrook and the Australian transports Duntroon and Katoomba escorted by USS Phoenix departed Fremantle on 22 February. Langley and Sea Witch left the convoy five days later to deliver the planes to Tjilatjap (Cilacap), Java.

During the darkness of morning Feb. 27th the USS Langley rendezvoused with the destroyers USS Whipple and USS Edsall, her anti-submarine screen, approximately  11:30, about 70 miles from the coast of Tjilatjap, A half dozen or more  Japanese dive bombers of the attacked. The first and second Japanese strikes were unsuccessful, but in the third Langley took five hits and 16 crewmen were killed. The topside burst into flames, steering was impaired, and the ship developed a 10° list to port. Unable to negotiate the narrow mouth of Tjilatjap harbor, Langley went dead in the water, as her engine room flooded.

The order to abandon ship was issued. The escorting destroyers fired 100 mm shells and torpedoes into Langley scuttling her to ensure she didn’t fall into enemy hands, and she sank in 29 minutes. *According to published sources US Naval records (Her approximate scuttle coordinates are: S 8° 51′ 04.20″ x E 109° 02′ 02.56″ Ap) *

After being transferred to USS Pecos, many of her crew were lost when Pecos was sunk en route to Australia. Thirty-one of the thirty three pilots assigned to the 13th Pursuit Squadron were lost with the Edsall when she was sunk on the same day while responding to the distress calls of Pecos.

Let me know if you enjoyed this article. The series on Aircraft Carriers continues but will not be in chronological order. A couple will be including my personal experiences aboard them. I hope you enjoy our stories. Additionally I hope you will leave your comments…

JR Hafer, aviation writer,


Vought VE-7