How Does an Aircraft Carrier Work?

Aircraft carriers serve as the centerpieces of the US Navy due to their ability to transport aircraft across the globe. The primary advantage of these vessels is their capacity to launch and land jets even in small spaces. The chaos of compact spaces has forced engineers to design aircraft carriers with effective devices such as catapult systems, Fresnel lenses, and arresting wires. Catapult systems are used during takeoff, while a Fresnel lens and arresting wires are used to help the pilot land. While such systems have been in place for decades, they are continually being improved over the years.

In terms of appearance, aircraft carriers come in a variety of designs. One notable example is the US Navy’s super aircraft carriers, which stand 20 stories above water and stretch 1,092 feet from bow to stern, making the sheer presence of these ships unfathomable. Their size is not the only incredible thing about these vessels. With a vast flight deck, super aircraft carriers can launch or land a plane every 25 seconds. This, however, is not the case for every aircraft carrier type. In fact, a majority of these ships have limited runway space; thus, engineers have been forced to devise powerful systems to accelerate and decelerate aircraft in short periods of time. 

For an aircraft carrier to serve as a true traveling airport, pilots and crew members rely on three elements to launch and land aircraft safely. First, they are equipped with four catapults that are specifically designed to launch planes at high speeds. Second, a lighting system called the Fresnel lens, or the “meatball” system, informs pilots if they are at the correct altitude and position when they are about to land. Third, four arresting cables are situated on the ship to bring the plane to rest in less than 320 feet.

Typically, aircraft necessitate long runways to acquire enough speed for takeoff. Since the runway length on an average aircraft carrier is about 300 feet, compared to the 2,300 feet required for normal takeoff, steam-powered catapults on the decks of these carriers can launch aircraft from 0 to 150 knots in just 2 seconds. Such ends are achieved through the two main components of the takeoff system: above ground and below ground operations.

Above deck, the crew is responsible for hooking the aircraft’s front wheel, or nose gear, to the catapult with the help of a tow bar. The tow bar hangs off the front of the nose gear, allowing the catapult to pull the aircraft. To prevent harmful jet discharge from making its way to unwanted areas, a jet-blast deflector is situated directly behind the aircraft, forcing the discharge up into the air. At this point, the pilot can push the engine to full throttle, generating the necessary thrust to propel the jet forward. Meanwhile, a holdback bar is in place to prevent any motion at this time, despite the thrust of the jet. Once the force from the catapult is added to the thrust of the jet, the excess force releases the holdback bar, enabling the jet to move.

Below deck, steam is pumped into a capsule at extremely high pressures. When a valve is released, steam shoots up a long tube that runs the length of the catapult. The pressure from the steam travels to several pistons that are attached to the catapult above by a pulley system located in a clearance running the length of the runway. Once the aircraft is at full throttle and the steam has created a build-up of pressure, the pistons are released and pushed forward at high speeds. This force causes the holdback device to release and launch the jet into the air. After launch, the catapult must be stopped with haste. As such, pressure from a water brake system brings the piston to a halt. The pulley then quickly retracts the catapults so that the next aircraft can be prepared for launch.

Beyond such operations being carried out above and below deck, landing is considered one of the most difficult tasks. The pilot is responsible for lining up with the runway at the right angle so that it may land successfully. The Fresnel lens optical landing system provides guidance, making it easier for pilots to maneuver onto the aircraft carrier. With regard to touchdown, this may be the most dangerous part for pilots, and this process is highly dependent on the ground crew to avoid any errors throughout the operation.

Cogent Purchasing is a leading supplier of aircraft carrier parts, aircraft landing gear system components, belt aircraft safety accessories, and more. With over 2 billion ready-to-purchase products in our inventory, customers can easily fulfill their part requirements. More than that, we offer rapid lead times and cost savings on thousands of items. Kickoff the procurement process with a competitive quote and see how Cogent Purchasing can serve as your strategic sourcing partner. 


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