Although the First World War was a time of devastation and tragedy, the conflict also pushed countries to new heights of innovation and technological advancement. In the build-up to 1914 – when hostilities finally broke out – and in the years that followed, inventors and engineers on both sides worked tirelessly to develop new weapons and machines of war that might tip the balance in their nation’s favor.
Aircraft carriers were one such innovation, and they drastically changed the way in which wars were fought, both in the air and on the ocean. With the advent of these behemoths, the reach of a country’s air force could be massively increased.
Planes could now be moved much closer to a potential target before they were launched, allowing them to reach enemy positions that would have been beyond their capacity had they taken off from the ground.
A perfect example of the aircraft carrier’s incredible potential came during the Second World War, when the Empire of Japan launched their unprecedented attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor.
Up until that point, the distance between Japan and its enemies in the West made direct aerial assault extremely difficult, but by using six aircraft carriers – grouped together in a tight fleet – they were able to move their attack force the necessary distance by sea before they took to the skies.
However, the process of developing the technology behind aircraft carriers as we know them today went through many different stages over the years. Their history can be traced back through many key landmark moments, beginning with Eugene Burton Ely’s first take off from a ship’s deck in 1910.
Another major event in that timeline came in March 1936 when, for the first time, a multi-engined plane took off from an aircraft carrier. That craft, the Potez 565, was a modified six passenger plane with two engines. Could a larger aircraft do it?
The United States Navy tested a larger plane on the 30th of October, 1963. The Hercules was a hulking four-engine C-130 turboprop. It is one of the most versatile military planes, designed to take off and land on rough runways, and it has found numerous different roles in military forces across the globe.
Today, it is still the tactical airlift of choice, not only for the United States air force but other militaries around the world as well. The basis of a Hercules frame is used in planes designed for aerial refueling, weather reconnaissance, aerial firefighting, and more.
Planes designed specifically for aircraft carriers connect to steam catapults for lift off and have an arresting hook for landing. The Hercules did not have this equipment. It was chosen for the test because of its cargo capacity and its stability in flight and landing.
The Hercules was also able to fly longer distances than other craft considered. The desired result of the test was to find a plane that could resupply aircraft carries. The Navy was limited with the plane it was using, the twin piston engine Grumman C-1 Trader, which could fly only 300 miles and had restricted cargo space.
The test flight was piloted by Lt. James Flatley III and his copilot, Lt. Cmdr. W.W. Stovall. Neither man had flown a C-130. They performed 29 touch and go landings, increasing the weight of the cargo throughout the test. Flatley was awarded the Flying Cross for piloting for his efforts.
The results determined the Hercules could fly 2,500 miles with a 25,000 lb payload and successfully land. However, it was considered to be too risky. The Navy settled for the smaller and more prudent Grumman C-2 Greyhound.
If you’re a fan of this aircraft in particular, or are just interested in the fascinating development of military technology in general, this video is certainly worth a watch.