It was just a few years after the Wright Brother's historic 1903 flight when people began flying airplanes off of ships. By the start of World War I, rudimentary aircraft carriers were already being used. In those early years, the airplanes were hardly more than spindly collections of spruce, linen, and castor oil. Likewise, their host ships had been built for other duties and then hastily modified to include add-on flight decks.
Aircraft carriers soon became purpose-built ships from the keel up. This set off a century-long evolution that would mold them into ever larger and more complex machines. The same is true of the airplanes they carried. You can begin to appreciate the scope of this change by comparing the 1,200 pound Sopwith Pup that flew from British ships in WWI to the 66,000 pound F/A-18E Super Hornet used by several modern navies.
An overview of the airplanes that have operated from aircraft carriers reveals a handful of outliers that were exceptionally large and/or heavy for their time. Let's take a look at a few examples and see what made them so unique.
1942 – B-25 Mitchell
WWII was the conflict that first illustrated the immense offensive capabilities of aircraft carriers. A prime example is the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor – a raid carried out solely by aircraft launched from six Japanese carriers. Immediately after the raid, President Roosevelt desperately wanted to deliver a retaliatory blow.
America's three Pacific-based aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor during the attack and were thus still operational. Yet, short of staging a large (strategically risky) multi-carrier attack, the US had very little offensive muscle in the Far East.
US Navy Captain Francis Low concocted the idea of flying twin-engine US Army Air Corps bombers from the deck of a carrier. These aircraft had a much greater bomb load and range than the Navy's single-engine carrier-based bombers and torpedo planes of the time. The army bombers would ride aboard a single carrier to deliver a one-time jab to the Japanese mainland. The idea quickly developed into the famous Doolittle Raid.
The aircraft carrier selected for the raid was the new USS Hornet. Mission commander Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his men flew in North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. Studies determined that B-25s with a 2,000 pound bomb load and sufficient fuel for a 2,000 mile trip could indeed takeoff from the Hornet's flight deck. After dropping their bombs on Tokyo, the planes would continue westward to land in China. So the B-25's inability to land aboard the carrier was not a concern.