The centerpiece of Navy operations Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are the backbone of America’s Navy, a fleet that supports U.S. interests and encourages peace around the globe. Typically traveling in battle groups, these vessels operate in international waters without needing permission for landing or overflight rights. Each is a self-sustained floating airport that’s sovereign U.S. territory. When deployed, they operate with their own ZIP code, post office, hospital, dental clinic, barbershops, athletic facilities and chapels. More than 18,000 meals are prepared daily and each of the crew has e-mail access.

A carrier has approximately 18 levels, including eight above the ship’s enormous hangar bay and ten decks below. The “island” or superstructure above the flight deck contains the bridge, where the Captain monitors flights and oversees operations, and the flag bridge, where the Admiral and his staff can watch operations and conduct task group-level planning. One level up from the navigation bridge is primary flight control or “Pri-Fly,” home to the “air boss.” The air boss controls all aircraft both on the flight deck and in the air within five miles of the ship.

When underway, Sailors aboard aircraft carriers are on watch, 24/7. They operate the engine room, guide the ship and maintain a watch for air, surface and subsurface threats to the battle group.

Naval aircraft carriers have three classifications:

Enterprise Class

The USS Enterprise was the first aircraft carrier with nuclear propulsion and is powered by eight nuclear reactors with four shafts.

Length: 1,040 feet
Flight Deck Width: 252 feet
Beam: 133 feet
Displacement: Approximately 89,600 tons full load
Speed: 30+ knots (34.5+ miles per hour)
Aircraft: Approximately 80, depending on type

Enterprise Class
USS Enterprise (CVN 65)

Learn more about the Enterprise Class Carrier in America’s Navy

Nimitz Class

Nuclear-powered Nimitz Class aircraft carriers are the largest warships in the world.

Length: 1,040 feet
Flight Deck Width: 252 feet
Beam: 134 feet
Displacement: Approximately 97,000 tons full load
Speed: 30+ knots/ (34.5+ miles per hour)
Aircraft: Approximately 80, depending on type

Nimitz Class
USS Nimitz (CVN 68)
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69)
USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70)
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72)
USS George Washington (CVN 73)
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75)
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)
USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77)

Learn more about Nimitz Class Carriers in America’s Navy

Ford Class

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is a new class of aircraft carrier, expected for delivery in 2015, that will be the premier asset for crisis response and early decisive striking power in a major combat operation.

Propulsion: Two nuclear reactors, four shafts
Length: 1,092 feet
Beam: 134 feet; Flight Deck Width: 256 feet
Displacement: approximately 100,000 long tons full load
Speed: 30+ knots (34.5+ miles per hour)
Crew: 4,660 (ship, air wing and staff)
Armament: Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, CIWS
Aircraft: 75+ (JSF, F/A-18E/F, EA-18G, E-2D, MH-60R/S, J-UCAS)

Learn more about the Gerald R. Ford Class Carrier in America's Navy

Support Equipment

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier has specialized equipment that helps ensure the safe takeoff and landing of dozens of aircraft each day.

Catapult
Each of the four steam-powered catapults can send a 48,000-pound plane 300 feet – from zero to 165 mph in two seconds. On each plane’s nose gear is a T-bar that locks into the catapult’s shuttle and pulls the plane down the catapult track.

Arresting Cables
Four steel cables are stretched across the deck of an aircraft carrier. The tailhook, a hook bolted to an 8-foot bar extending from the belly of the aircraft, catches one of the carrier’s four cables, bringing the 150-mph plane to a stop in about 320 feet. The cables are set to stop each aircraft at the same place on the deck, regardless of its size or weight.

Elevator
Each of the four deck-edge elevators can lift two aircraft from the huge hangar bay to the 4.5-acre flight deck in seconds.

Meatball
This bank of lights along the side of the landing area helps pilots determine whether they are high or low as they approach the ship to land. A horizontal row of fixed green lights intersects a vertical array of red and yellow lights. All lights are always illuminated, and a Fresnel lens system allows pilots to see only the light that corresponds to the glide path they are taking to the ship.

Flight Deck Control
Crewmembers maintain a scale model version of the actual flight deck and the ship’s hangar bay on the flight deck level of the island. Miniature airplanes with tail numbers are placed in positions that correspond to each real aircraft’s location.