As her hull number indicates, the USS Langley (CV-1) was the US Navy's first aircraft carrier. As a carrier, she served from April 1920 until she was scuttled in February 1942.
Langley started out life as a collier (coal ship, used when naval vessels burned coal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) named USS Jupiter. The vessel was originally constructed at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco. Her keel was laid in August 1911 and the finished vessel was launched in April 1913.
After six years of coaling operations, her conversion to the Navy's first "flat top" was authorized by the Defense Department in July 1919. Jupiter' s name was changed to Langley and conversion work began at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard the following year.
Interestingly, her conversion actually reduced her mass. As a collier, she had displaced 19,650 tons; conversion to a carrier reduced this by almost 8000 tons. Her length of 542 feet and beam of 65 feet remained, however, her crew compliment increased from 163 to 468 officers and seamen.
Langley was also the first US Navy ship to be powered electrically; propulsion was provided by a turbo-electric drive manufactured by General Electric.
Repairs and Upgrades
Based on her early experiences, Langley underwent changes at Norfolk during the summer of 1924. Among these was the conversion of a pigeon house into officers' quarters; early experiments with the use of carrier pigeons for ship-to-shore communications were unsuccessful.
Langley's career as an aircraft carrier ended in October 1936 when she was ordered back to Mare Island for conversion to a seaplane tender and reclassified as AV-3.
As naval aviation was in its infancy in the years following the First World War, virtually everything that occurred aboard Langley during her fourteen years as a carrier was experimental. She was not the first ship to have a flight deck, nor the first to launch aircraft (Britain's Royal Navy had experimented with this during the war), but she represented the first time that aircraft were able to successfully land on such a vessel – and she was the first vessel to use a catapult.
Langley spent her first few years off the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean conducting experiments and giving exhibitions of the new form of warfare. Following yard work in 1924, she was transferred to the Pacific, where she remained for the rest of her career, operating between the coast of California and Hawaii.
After the completion of conversion to a seaplane tender in February 1937, Langley spent two years in her new role operating along the West Coast and Hawaii. After a short period with the Atlantic Fleet during the first half of 1939, she was ordered to Manila, Philippines, where she dropped anchor in September of that year.
With the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941, Langley sailed for Darwin and took up duty with a joint Allied force, assisting with anti-submarine patrols and transporting aircraft around the region.
Less than two months into 1942, Langley was targeted by a flight of twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The bombers made five direct hits, killing sixteen crewmen and disabling the vessel. After orders were given to abandon ship, the destroyers escorting Langley scuttled her.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Langley (CV-1)
Asbestos was used in and around the engines and propulsion equipment on Langley. Wider installation of asbestos insulation in the design of oceangoing ships was ordered by the US Congress in the 1930s, after a deadly fire aboard a luxury liner killed 137 passengers and crew. Navy ships like Langley used asbestos insulation extensively around ship's boilers and engine rooms, as well as to insulate pipes all over the vessel. The harm brought about by asbestos occurs when tiny particles are inhaled; they invade the lungs and sometimes the stomach, leading to development of scar tissue in the case of asbestosis and damage at the cellular level in the case of lung cancer and mesothelioma.
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Friedman, Norman. US Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983)
Mooney, James. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. (Washington DC; Department of the Navy, 1991).