An aircraft carrier comprises several different sections, as do all warships. The lower decks of a carrier are similar to those on other ships. They house the engine rooms and compartments for either oil-fired boilers or nuclear reactors, depending on the type of propulsion being used. (Newer carriers are all nuclear powered. The United States has not built an oil-powered carrier since 1968.) A carrier is driven by four massive propellers, and the ship’s engines can generate over 280,000 horsepower to accelerate the carrier to a speed of just over 56 km/h (35 mph).
The upper areas of an aircraft carrier differ from those of conventional warships. An enormous hangar bay runs the length and width of the ship and is referred to as the first deck, or hangar deck. Planes can be serviced on the hangar deck, safe from the effects of wind and weather. Massive elevators, each the size of a typical home, move aircraft between the hangar deck and the flight deck on top, where the planes take off and land. In the area between the hangar deck and flight deck, called the gallery, the ship’s pilots live, work, and prepare for flights.
The flight deck may look quite large, but it is actually small for all the activities that take place on it. Because the runway is so short, planes must be flung into the air by steam catapults that are built into the flight deck. These catapults are 90 m (300 ft) long and draw their power directly from the ship’s engines; they can accelerate a plane from 0 to 240 km/h (150 mph) in three seconds. Each carrier has four catapults: two on the forward area, or bow, and two in the center area, referred to as amidships. The bow area is only used for launching planes because it is too short for landings. The amidships area and the deck behind it can be used for launching and landing planes. It is angled slightly from the centerline of the ship so that landing planes do not interfere with planes taking off from the bow. All four catapults can be used to launch airplanes in a hurry, but during continuous exercises, planes need to land in order to refuel and reload ammunition. When landings are taking place, planes are launched only off the bow catapults so that other jets can land on the angled area. The bow area can also serve as a parking area, out of the way of landings, when launches are not taking place.
Overlooking the flight deck area on the right, or starboard, side is the carrier’s command and control tower, referred to as the island. The island is small, so as not to encroach on valuable flight deck space. The seven-story structure is covered with antennas and radar scanners. The top level of the island is like the control tower at an airport. Here, the ship’s air boss, or controller, controls the movement of planes on the flight deck and those flying near the ship. The next level below the controller is the carrier’s pilothouse, also referred to as the bridge. On the bridge, the captain and other members of the crew control the ship’s speed and direction.
Unlike other warships such as cruisers and destroyers, a carrier has very few weapons built directly onto the ship itself. The aircraft on board the ship serve as its primary weapon. American carriers have the widest variety of aircraft. The typical 86-plane air wing of an American carrier is composed of several types of offensive aircraft. Fighter aircraft include F-14 Tomcat fighters (to shoot down enemy planes that may try to attack the carrier) and F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters (a type of plane that can both drop bombs and shoot down enemy planes). Support aircraft on board include the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft (the only plane on the ship still flown by propellers). It carries a large radar and transmits information back to the carrier, so the ship knows what is going on up to 480 km (300 mi) away. The EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare airplane jams enemy radar, and the S-3B Viking antisubmarine airplane hunts for enemy subs and sinks them if they get too close to the carrier. A carrier also carries about a half dozen SH-60F Ocean Hawk helicopters, which can also hunt submarines, as well as rescue any pilots who suffer an accident. See also Military Aviation.
Landing a plane on a carrier is a complicated procedure that requires tremendous skill on the part of the pilot. When planes are cleared to land, pilots come in behind the ship, lower the landing gear and tailhook, and line up with a series of lights and lenses on the carrier commonly called the meatball. The meatball tells pilots if they are too high or too low as they are coming in to land. Their goal is to keep the light centered in the middle of the set of lenses. Navy pilots refer to this procedure as “calling the ball.” As the plane crosses over the carrier deck, the tailhook snags one of four heavy steel cables stretched across the deck, bringing the plane to a stop in about 90 m (300 ft) of deck space.
When carrier pilots land (or trap, as Navy pilots like to call it), they apply full power to their engines so that if the cables break (which happens rarely) they will have enough power to fly off and try to land again. Landings are made both day and night in clear and bad weather. Pilots prefer to land on large carriers, not because of the larger landing area, but because a large carrier is steadier since it weighs more, and therefore does not pitch as much in heavy seas.