May 15, 2019

Battleship Aviation Part 1

People are often surprised to learn that battleships carried fixed-wing airplanes. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Battleships don't have anywhere for airplanes to take off or land, and that totally leaves aside the thorny question of why. But battleships were deeply tied into the operation of aircraft at sea from the earliest days until the aircraft carrier was available in sufficient numbers towards the end of the Second World War.

Eugene Ely takes off from Birmingham

Surface warships, although admittedly not battleships, provided the stages for the first steps of shipboard aviation. American pilot Eugene Ely took off from a ramp built over the bow of the light cruiser Birmingham on November 14th, 1910, and landed safely ashore. The following January, he landed aboard the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, using a series of hooks on the underside of his airplane to catch ropes tied to sandbags and stretched across a specially-installed landing deck. However, impressive though these achievements were, coming less than a decade after the Wright Brother's first flight at Kitty Hawk, a great deal of work would have to be done to make operational use of aircraft from ships practical. Both flights had required large ramps that blocked the ship's guns, and the vessels had been at anchor, not underway.

The first takeoff from a moving ship

The second hurdle turned out to be fairly trivial for taking off, a feat accomplished a year later by British pilot Charles Samson, this time from an actual battleship, HMS Hibernia. Landing aboard a moving ship was much more complicated, as the ship left a trail of disturbed air behind it, a serious problem for the extremely light airplanes of powered flight's first two decades. This problem was solved by the simple expedient of fitting the airplane with floats and landing it on the water, although waves posed an obvious problem for returning pilots. It was also tricky to bring the plane alongside and hoist it aboard, a problem that would remain for the rest of the life of the seaplane.

HMS Ark Royal

Because the ramp remained necessary for the plane to get airborne, operational use of aircraft from ships was initially restricted to specialized seaplane carriers which didn't have to worry about the ramps interfering with their arcs of fire. It was from these vessels that the first partnerships between aircraft and battleship took place. In 1915, the seaplane carrier Ark Royal was dispatched to the Dardanelles to provide gunfire spotting for the battleships engaged in bombarding the Turkish defenses of the strait. The ability of the aircraft to see over the horizon or past hills to enable better gunnery would be the most valuable capability it brought to the battleship over the rest of the big-gun warship's life. A more general case of this ability was demonstrated the next year during the battle of Jutland, when a seaplane was launched from HMS Engadine to scout the German fleet, although signalling snafus meant that the information was never received by Admiral Beatty.

German Naval Zeppelin L12

However, it soon became apparent that seaplane operations in the open ocean simply weren't a practical means of providing air power to the fleet. The seaplanes of the day often struggled to get airborne in the rough conditions common in the North Sea, and the evolving situation required more reliable air power. The German Navy had a number of Zeppelins that it used for reconnaissance in the North Sea, and the British wanted fighters to shoot them down. Even when conditions were right, the process of launching a seaplane was too slow, and the drag of the floats hindered performance to the point that no zeppelins were successfully intercepted in two years of seaplane fighter deployment. There was also a shortage of carriers fast enough to keep up with the fleet, which compounded the problem.

A Sopwith Camel on a flying-off platform aboard HMS Tiger

One solution was to fit the battleships to launch landplane fighters themselves. If a rotating flying-off platform was used, it could be aligned with the wind, removing the need to leave formation and then catch up again that had previously plagued flying from units of the fleet. This method could routinely achieve headwinds of 25 knots or more, and with such headwinds the fighters of the day, extremely light by modern standards, needed a run of only about 30' to get airborne. And a battleship came with several ready-made turntables big enough to support such a platform, in the form of its turrets. Of course, there was the small problem of landing the airplane. If the fleet was close enough to a shore base, the airplane would land there, but in operations, the pilot would ditch the plane near a destroyer, and be picked up by boat. If time permitted, the airplane would be hoisted aboard a ship, and the engine and weapons salvaged. This was acceptable because airplanes of the day were relatively cheap and the rapid development of aviation meant that last year's models were often semi-obsolete.1 Later on, the same technique was used to increase the fleet's supply of two-seater spotting planes, although they were heavier and required a longer takeoff run. This was solved by extending the flying-off platform from the roof of the turret onto the gun barrels. In action, the planes would be flown off, or, if that wasn't possible, pushed over the side due to the fire hazard they presented, and a small section of the platform would be removed to allow the guns to elevate normally.2

A Sopwith Strutter takes off from HMAS Australia

Flying-off platforms were first fitted in late 1917, and the first takeoff was made from B turret of Repulse on October 1st. Fitting of the platforms was rapid. By the end of the war, 26 capital ships had two platforms and two aircraft, while another 10 had platforms, but had not yet received their aircraft, and 8 more were authorized to have platforms but had not yet had them fitted. Typically, one platform had a 2-seat spotter, usually a Sopwith 1BD Strutter and the other carried a fighter, like a Sopwith Pup or Camel. The USN quickly followed suit, although for some reason, they had substantially more trouble with their platforms.

A flying-off platform on an American battleship

In the aftermath of the war, flying-off platforms persisted for a few years, but their days were numbered. Aircraft on the platforms were exposed to wind and wave, and as aircraft weights rose, so did the speeds need to get airborne. The configuration of the platform limited the takeoff run to 70' or so, so another solution was needed, and it was found in the form of the catapult. We'll look at its introduction aboard the battleship next time.

1 Something very similar was done in WWII, when some merchant ships were fitted with catapults and worn-out landplane fighters to shoot down German snoopers.

2 I am not sure how this integrated with the standard British practice of firing half-salvoes from their guns, which would often result in guns being at different elevations. It's possible they planned to just ignore this and let the platform break.


  1. May 15, 2019Neal said...

    Great article Bean. I had no idea about the ramps they built on the tops of the turrets. Would have loved to give it a try...

    Looking forward to the next in the series on this.

  2. May 15, 2019David W said...

    Thanks for the extra detail! It's still blowing my mind that they treated airplanes as disposable ordnance, basically. And what kind of pilot volunteers? 'Oh, we'll probably fish you out of the ocean after you ditch, if we win fast enough. Well, not my ship, just one of the little ones we don't care about much'

  3. May 15, 2019bean said...

    You're both very welcome. This was a particularly interesting series to write, although it also took a lot of research. (Weirdly, not so much for this post as for some of the other ones.)

    As for pilots, anyone who climbed into a WWI-era plane was crazy by modern standards. But enough people really wanted to fly that they weren't short of volunteers. And I'd probably take being a naval pilot and ditching over being a fighter pilot during the worst of the fighting over the Western Front.

  4. May 15, 2019cassander said...

    World War 1 aviation was insane in general. The planes were made out of balsa wood, cloth, and glue, and leaked oil constantly so they burst into flames if you as much as looked at them funny. The pilots had as little as a few hours of in the cockpits, with basically no instruments, not even fuel gauges! It's not surprising that operational losses vastly exceeded combat loses, but for a good taste of how insane it was, I recommend Marked for Death as an excellent history ww1 aviation from a heavily British perspective.

  5. May 16, 2019Eric Rall said...

    [reposting, hopefully this time with better formatting]

    I had no idea about the ramps they built on the tops of the turrets.

    Neither did I, but it makes sense: a platform atop a turret provides a flat area with clear zone in front of it for the plane to take off, and you can probably use the turret’s existing mechanisms for pointing the takeoff platform in different directions and adjusting its slope.

    As for pilots, anyone who climbed into a WWI-era plane was crazy by modern standards. But enough people really wanted to fly that they weren’t short of volunteers.

    It probably helped that WW1 militaries often offered promotion to officer rank as an inducement to volunteer for pilot training and subsequent combat duty.

  6. May 17, 2019bean said...

    you can probably use the turret’s existing mechanisms for pointing the takeoff platform in different directions and adjusting its slope.

    Yes on direction (that was the major driver, besides not taking up deck space) and no on slope. First, guns go up and ramps go down, so unless you store the fighter over the muzzles and launch backwards (there are obvious problems with this) you can't get a meaningful slope that way. They just put the guns at minimum elevation and left it that way.

  7. May 30, 2019doctorpat said...

    It probably helped that WW1 militaries often offered promotion to >officer rank as an inducement to volunteer for pilot training and >subsequent combat duty.

    Remember that the alternative was sitting in the mud, being gassed, and waiting for your turn to charge a machine gun.

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