Early Fight Decks

We have all seen pictures and videos of modern aircraft carriers and the huge flight decks that enable jet aircraft to be launched and recovered but haven’t you ever wondered what the first aircraft carriers and their flight decks were like?
Eugene Ely was the first person to take off from a warship and it wasn’t even an aircraft carrier. He was launched from the front end of a cruiser (USS Birmingham) on November 14,1910.
Eugene Ely
USS Birmingham (CL-2)
So much for taking off in his underpowered aircraft, but what about landing?
This didn’t occur until two months later on January 18, 1911 when Eugene Ely landed his Curtiss pusher aboard the amored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4). This was the first successful aircraft landing on a ship, and the first using a tailhook system designed by Hugh Robinson, the chief engineer for Curtiss Aviation.
In both cases the flight decks were simple wood ramp structures built over the cruiser’s ship decks using only partial (but not the full length) of the ship. The ships were not under way at sea either which would be the next step in the evolution of the aircraft carrier and naval aviation operations.This would not happen for more than a year later.
USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4)
May 4, 1912 Commander Charles Samson became the first man to take off from a ship which was underway when he flew his Short S-27 from the deck of the battleship HMS Hibernia which was steaming ahead at 10.5 knots. Now all that was left to do was to land while underway, which would not happen for several more years.
HMS Hibernia with takeoff ramp.

Because the take-off speed of early aircraft was so low, it was possible for an aircraft to make a very short take off when the launching ship was steaming into the wind. The Hibernia still wasn’t a true aircraft carrier and it did not have the capability to recover any aircraft after they departed.

Short S-27 departing the HMS Hibernia 1912.
On August 2, 1917 Commander Edwin H. Dunning of the British Royal Naval Air Service was the first pilot to land an aircraft (a Sopwith Pup) on a moving ship the HMS Furious. Unfortunately five days later as he attempted to land his aircraft he went over the side, where he was knocked unconcious in the cockpit and drowned, thus Dunning also has the dubious distinction of being the first person to die in an aircraft carrier landing accident.
E.H. Dunning landing a Sopwith Pup HMS Furious

The HMS Furious was a modified cruiser and note that the flight deck still isn’t the full length of the ship.

HMS Argus The first aircraft carrier that began to show the configuration of the modern vessel was the converted liner HMS Argus which was launched in 1917. It had a large flat wooden deck added over the entire length of the hull, giving a combined landing and take-off deck unobstructed by a superstructure.
The ship’s flight deck was 549 feet long with a ship’s beam of 68 feet. The Argus also had 330 feet (100.6 m) long, 48–68 feet (14.6–20.7 m) wide, and 16 feet (4.9 m) high hangar deck with two aircraft lifts.
The lack of a superstructure command position and funnel were considered unsatisfactory, and the Argus was used to experiment with various ideas to remedy the solution. It was found that some early aircraft naturally yawed to port (left) on take-off; therefore, superstructures were placed on the starboard (right) side of ships to avoid the potential risk of colliding with the structure and so this became the typical aircraft carrier arrangement and was used in future carrier designs.
USS Langley It is interesting to note that the first U.S. Carrier, USS Langley, launched in 1920 also had a flat deck with no superstructure.
The Langley was similar in size to the Argus, with a length of 542 ft (165 m) and a beam of 65 ft 5 in. (19.94 m).
The Langley only had one aircraft lift and one catapult but it was the Navy’s official entry into the era of the aircraft carrier.
In both ships, the hangar deck was the strength deck and flight decks were wood, usually considered part of the superstructure.
The HMS Hermes was the world’s first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. She was launched September 11, 1919. Prior to this time all aircraft carriers were conversions of existing ships. Carrier evolution was well underway by the mid-1920′s with armored and angled decks still to come.
HMS Hermes