WASHINGTON NAVY YARD –At 1,092 feet, the length of three football fields, and weighing in at over 100,000 tons, this floating steel giant is a moving city at sea, capable of carrying more than 5,000 personnel and 80 aircraft at a time. Powered by dual nuclear reactors, it can operate for 20 years without refueling.

The Navy aircraft carrier stands as one of the most powerful pieces of equipment the U.S. Navy operates, a symbol of strength among the world’s military powers. Since its creation in 1922, the aircraft carrier and has evolved to become a center piece of the Navy’s efforts to maintain freedom of the seas, to project power at sea and ashore, and to support a multitude of humanitarian missions.

Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) celebrated the Centennial of United States Navy Aircraft Carriers March 20. The anniversary commemorates the commissioning date of the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier and celebrates the many historic aircraft carriers that followed.

“The centennial is about commemorating the evolution of the rich history and heritage in peace and war,” said Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum, in Pensacola, Fla. “Through looking at the past, the Navy also hopes to inform the public of the viability and necessity of the aircraft carrier in their next century of service.”

In March 1922, the coal-carrying cargo ship USS Jupiter was commissioned as USS Langley (CV 1). Although the initial designs were primitive, Langley marked the birth of the most significant seaborne weapon in U.S. naval history.

Langley’s successes led to the production of more carriers that followed shortly after. USS Lexington (CV 2) was commissioned in 1927. Commissioned in 1934, USS Ranger (CV 4), was

the first ship of the Navy designed and built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier. Designs and capabilities evolved as technology progressed, and after displaying significant effectiveness in their roles in World War II, aircraft carriers quickly took their place as titans of the sea.

“These ships are significant to U.S. naval history because of their longevity and adaptability,” said Goodspeed. “In a service whose past is marked by evolving technology, it is incredible that the aircraft carrier has not only been able to endure, but remains such a viable element of the sea service. It has evolved and expanded its mission capabilities to meet new challenges and requirements.”

Today’s aircraft carriers of the Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford classes have evolved significantly since Langley’s humble beginnings. The invention of their angled deck, for example, allows simultaneous landing and launching capabilities. Steam and, in the case of the Gerald R. Ford, electro-magnetic catapults enable heavy jet aircraft to take off from the limited deck space. Also, nuclear propulsion provides carriers with greater power, range and endurance.

“More recently, carriers have contributed immensely to the air campaigns in the Middle East,” said Dr. John Darrell Sherwood, a historian at NHHC. “During recent humanitarian operations such as Operation Unified Assistance -- the U.S. military response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia -- and Operation Tomodachi -- the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan -- carriers have played an enormous role by serving as floating bases for helicopters flying in relief supplies to survivors.”

Today, among the world’s 14 navies, the United States Navy operates 11 of the total 47 active aircraft carriers. U.S. carriers are the largest in the world with a combined deck space of more than twice that of all other nations combined.

This year the Centennial of United States Navy Aircraft Carriers provides a chance for the Navy to look back with pride and appreciation at the rich history of these ships. From its earliest days in 1922 to the advanced platform of today, our current carriers, these floating, warfighting cities, continue to evolve as they serve and protect their nation.

NHHC, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.

For more news from NHHC, visit www.history.navy.mil.