Representing the hallmark of U.S. superiority on the high seas, the nuclear aircraft carrier is the epitome of our nations’ military superpower status. And of the nuclear supercarriers, the Nimitz-class is the newest, largest, and fastest in the world. At nearly 1,100 feet long, the Chrysler building can be laid upon its deck with fifty feet to spare at each end.
A Four and a Half Acre Floating Airport
Primarily a floating airport, the Nimitz-class carriers are capable of simultaneously launching four aircraft a minute from the ships’ four catapults. Also, the ships can service seven different types of aircraft with accommodations for up to 90 planes on its 4.5 acre flight deck and in enormous hangars below. Four massive elevators bring the planes to the flight deck where color-coded teams coordinate the launching of the aircraft with carefully choreographed procedures: yellow for officers and aircraft directors, purple for fuel handlers, green for catapult and arresting gear crews, blue for tractor drivers, brown for chock and chain runners, and red for crash and salvage teams and the ordinance handlers.
With hoses coming from the decks below, the fuel tanks are filled, bombs and rockets sent up from the ships’ magazines are attached to the planes wings and fuselage, and the planes are placed into position on the catapult by small tractors. Operated by high pressure steam, the catapults are powerful enough to launch a 35-ton aircraft 300 feet from zero to around 165 miles per hour within three seconds.
Carrier Strike Groups
The primary role of the air wing includes such missions as search and destroys sorties on enemy aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Also, air strikes can be conducted on enemy land targets, for protecting the carrier group, and for supporting naval blockades. Since aircraft carriers are relatively limited in their defensive capabilities, having only four Sea Sparrow launchers and up to four 20mm. gun mounts, they never operate as a stand-alone vessel but travel as the centerpiece of a carrier strike group (CSG). Currently, the U.S. employs eleven CSGs, 10 of which are based in the U.S. and one in Japan. A typical CSG consists of the carrier, three or more destroyers, one or two Aegis guided missile cruisers, two or three guided missile destroyers, up two attack submarines, and a combination ammunition, oiler, and supply ship.
The Ten Supercarriers
Commissioned in 1975, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was the first of the ten Supercarriers in this classification. These ships are numbered consecutively up to CVN-77. The “CV” identifies the ship as an aircraft carrier, with the suffix “N” indicating nuclear powered propulsion. The last carrier produced was the USS George H. W. Bush, currently in its shakedown cruise. Commission into the fleet is scheduled for 2009.