100 Years of the Ark Royal – Royal Navy Aircraft

100 years ago today the second HMS Ark Royal was commissioned, this ship was special in that it was the first to be designed and built to carry aircraft.

During the war it was largely used for seaplane storage rather than actual flight deck operations though it did have a launching station on deck. The ship was brought back into service in 1930 for use as a training ship for seaplane pilots.

Ark Royal was renamed HMS Pegasus in 1934 and continued to serve until 1939. During the early stages of the war she was used as a trials machine for catapulting aircraft.

HMS Ark Royal after completion in 1914.

It wasn’t until 1917 that the royal navy had a ship aircraft could actually take off and land from. This came in the form of HMS Furious. On the 2nd August 1917 Squadron Commander Dunning became the first man to land an aircraft on a moving ship when he did so in a Sopwith Pup.

The design of this carrier was deemed to be lacking after Dunning was killed on his third landing attempt. These operations led to the development of more advanced carriers as the years went on.

A Sopwith Pup, much like the example which performed the first landings at sea.

A Sopwith Pup, much like the example which performed the first landings at sea.

The name Ark Royal was to appear yet again in 1938 and with it came a more advanced era of aircraft carrier design. The new ship had a much more familiar deck layout was used extensively by Swordfish and Skua aircraft during the first few years of the war. There were also two post war incarnations of the Ark Royal, in 1955 and 1985, both playing a key part in the nation’s naval protection.

Carrier Aircraft Development:

As the development of the carriers themselves went on so did the aircraft, starting with machines such as the Sopwith Pup and Camel, which performed limted flights off of carriers such as HMS Argus. These early aircraft of course had very short take off and landing requirements of course so did not require much modification for deck operations.

The Sopwith Camel was an unlikely early carrier aircraft.

The Sopwith Camel was an unlikely early carrier aircraft.

Between the wars aircraft such as the Hawker Nimrod were the order of the day, these sleek silver biplanes were a navalised version of the Hawker Fury design. The first aircraft carrier to have Nimrod’s for operations was HMS Glorious in 1932.

A Hawker Nimrod II at North Weald in 2010.

A Hawker Nimrod II at North Weald in 2010.

One aircraft that remained successful throughout the war operating off aircraft carriers was the fairy Swordfish; this slow and stable bi-plane was involved in a number of famous raids over the years. This aircrafts finest hour was the part it played in the sinking of the German Bismarck battleship in 1941.

Fairy Swordfish at Goodwood in 2011.

Fairy Swordfish at Goodwood in 2011.

Having been so successful during the battle of Britain attentions turned early on to turning the Hawker Hurricane into a ship based fighter. Early attempts dubbed Hurri-cats were simply hoisted onto merchant ships and catapulted of the front.

While this was no problem for getting the aeroplane into the air the end result was less than ideal, with ditching being the only option. Eventually the Sea Hurricane was produced featuring and arrestor hook allowing for more traditional operations.

The Shuttleworth Collection's Sea Hurricane getting airborne.

The Shuttleworth Collection’s Sea Hurricane getting airborne.

A similar process was undertaken with the Sptifire ultimately resulting in the Seafire which like its land based relative went on to be developed through a number of marks.

Seafire XVII at North Weald in 2010.

Seafire XVII at North Weald in 2010.

In 1943 the Royal Navy took delivery of the first Vought Corsairs, which up until that point had a terrible safety record when landing on carriers. The Royal Navy managed to overcome these problems by adopting a curved approach, allowing better views forward. Another unique feature of the early RNAS Corsairs was the clipped wing design, owing to low ceilings in the under deck hangars. The royal navys success with the aircraft led to the United States starting carrier operations again with the type.

The Fighter Collection's Corsair, wearing Royal Navy markings.

The Fighter Collection’s Corsair, wearing Royal Navy markings.

Without a doubt the peak of British carrier based piston aircraft design was the wonderful Hawker Sea Fury. First flying in 1945 the aircraft missed the second world war, however it went on to be used in the Korean War, claiming a number of kills against the new jet aircraft of the time.

There are a number of Sea Furies still flying around the world, though at present there are none in the UK due to a series of engine problems with the aircraft’s Centuarus power plant. However there is nothing better than the sound of a Sea Fury screaming across the sky during a display.

Hawker Sea Fury FB.11 at Biggin Hill.

Hawker Sea Fury FB.11 at Biggin Hill.

Following the Sea Fury naval aviation made way for the jet age, with aircraft such as the Sea Hawk and Sea Venom leading the way right up to the modern age of Harriers and the F-35 Lightning as we have today.

Hawker Sea Hawk.

Hawker Sea Hawk.

This has very much been a “Potted” history of Royal Naval aircraft and many important types have been omitted,  but it seemed the best way to commemorate the Ark Royal’s first appearance as an aircraft carrier.

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