America’s Forrestal Class Aircraft Carrier

By Peter Suciu
Posted in #History
Save Remove from saved articles
Like Unlike
Facebook Share Twitter Share Pinterest Share

America’s Forrestal Class Aircraft Carrier

September 16th, 2023

10 minute read

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead vessel of a new class of United States Navy supercarriers, is the largest warship ever built in naval history. Though a bit behind schedule (not to mention over budget), the nuclear-powered vessel entered the fleet last year, replacing the decommissioned USS Enterprise (CVN-65), which ended her 61 years of active service in December 2012.

two f-18 fly over uss saratoga
Aerial view of two F/A-18C Hornet aircraft of Strike Fighter Squadron Seventy-Four (VFA-74) in flight above the Forrestal Class, Aircraft Carrier USS Saratoga (CV 60) during Operation Desert Shield. Image: NARA

While the Ford-class will eventually replace the aging Nimitz-class aircraft carriers on a one-for-one basis over the coming decades, neither were the original supercarriers to see service with the U.S. Navy. That designation actually goes to the four ships of the conventionally powered Forrestal-class (while all following supercarriers were nuclear powered), which helped usher in the unprecedented naval dominance and air power the United States Navy has maintained since the Second World War.

uss forrestal battle group underway in the atlantic ocean
Turning starboard, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) steams at the head of its battle group as it approaches New York City for Fleet Week. Image: NARA

These carriers could project U.S. power practically anywhere globally — serving as floating airbases. Moreover, many of the design elements seen with the nuclear-powered carriers of today were first employed on the Cold War-era vessels that entered service in the mid-1950s.

uss saratoga bow view forrestal class aircraft carrier
A bow view of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV 60) underway in 1985. Image: NARA

In addition to their massive size, which surpassed the massive World War II Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano — which was converted from the third gigantic Yamato-class battleship hull — the Forrestal-class featured deck-edge elevators and an angled flight deck. Though older U.S. Navy carriers eventually incorporated those features during refits, the Forrestal-class was designed with them from the ground up.

ordnancemen of uss ranger aircraft carrier
Ordnancemen maneuver a pallet of ammunition in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV 61.) Image: NARA

This new class of warship was thus a true leap forward, and while they arrived too late to see service in the Korean War, the four Forrestal-class aircraft carriers played a vital role throughout the Cold War.

What About the United States-Class?

Though the Forrestal-class is now closely associated with the Cold War era, its development actually began during the Second World War. The United States Navy admiralty was already looking beyond the Midway-class that only entered service just as the hostilities ended. In addition to seeing the need for an armored flight deck for added survivability, the admiralty also determined that the next class of carriers would need to be far larger, and, more importantly, able to accommodate larger jet aircraft. 

uss america cva-58 aircraft carrier
The USS America (CVA-58) was intended to be the first supercarrier in the U.S. Navy. This artist’s rendering shows the ship without any island. Image: U.S. Navy

In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman approved the construction of five supercarriers — vessels that could project U.S. power worldwide. Funding was to be provided in the Naval Appropriations Act of 1949, and this led to what was designated the USS United States (CVA-58), which was to be the lead ship of a new class of post-World War II flattops.

uss forrestal under construction early sea trials
Still under construction, the USS Forrestal is eased away from its berth for early sea trials. Image: NARA

As initially envisioned, it was quite a radical departure from the aircraft carriers built during the Second World War — notably the way it even evoked the “streamlined modern” of the Art Deco architecture and design movement that was commonly seen with post-war automobiles and aircraft. It might have been a handsome warship, but whether it would have been practical has been questioned for decades.

Most notably, the proposed 65,000-ton carrier (83,000 tons fully loaded) was designed with a flush-deck without an island. Though considered almost revolutionary by today’s standards, it should be noted that the USS Langley (CV-1) — a converted collier and the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier — featured a flush-deck, but that was because the flight deck was literally built on top of the vessel.

uss forrestal in new york city
The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) approaches the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. Image: NARA

In addition, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Ryūjō was a flush-decked carrier without an island superstructure. Its navigating and control bridge was located just under the forward lip of the flight deck in a long glassed-in “greenhouse.” However, Ryūjō proved to be top-heavy — and the issue was never fully addressed.

uss independence in toulon france
A port view of the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62) anchored in the harbor of Toulon, France. Image: NARA

In the case of CVA-58, the flush-deck was to allow for the launch and recovery of large aircraft of 100,000 pounds — in other words, bombers that could carry nuclear weapons. However, that fact was also what scuttled the program just as it was getting started. There was inter-service rivalry between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, and nuclear bombers were something the latter wasn’t willing to share. The USS United States was canceled just as the first plates were laid down in 1949. It also resulted in the U.S. Navy opting for a more conventional design.

The Forrestal-class Takes Shape

The development of the Forrestal, the U.S. Navy’s first supercarrier, incorporated many lessons from the Korean War, and this resulted in significant improvements over previous carrier designs. This included a broader flight deck, while the size was increased by some 25 percent. 

james forrestal with general dwight eisenhower
The carriers were named after Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal (at right). He is shown above with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Normandy, France during the fall of 1944. Image: NARA

Instead of a flush deck, the new class of supercarriers was originally to have a retractable island — but that proved impractical. In fact, it is almost impossible today to consider how it could have been successfully accomplished. In the end, the supercarriers featured a taller and larger island.

uss forrestal island
A port view of the island and masts of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV 59). Visible are the multiple bridges. The square SPS-48C 3-D radar used for aircraft control is at the center left. Image: NARA

This actually accommodated a triple bridge with enclosed full-size posts for the CO, XO and wing command, as well as an admiralty bridge and open bridge on top. The island further supported large aerials and antennae for all-around long-range air and sea surveillance, completed by its own air group.

radar operator aboard the uss independence
Operations Specialist 2nd Class Jeff Clinton monitors a radar screen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62.) Image: NARA

As the Forrestal-class carriers were also the first designed specifically to operate jet aircraft, another revolutionary design was employed — namely its angled flight deck, which permitted simultaneous takeoffs and landings. To some U.S. Navy officials, this was seen as a radical compromise, but in addition to allowing for the much larger island, it provided unprecedented flexibility during air operations — or almost. 

a-6 intruder on approach of uss forrestal
A view from the cockpit of an Attack Squadron 176 (VA-176) KA-6D Intruder aircraft as it approaches the stern of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV 59). Image: NARA

The first two vessels of the class, USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga (CVA-60) were actually laid down as axial deck carriers but converted during construction — while the subsequent USS Ranger (CVA-61) and USS Independence (CVA-62) were laid down as angled deck aircraft carriers. More importantly, angled flight decks became the basis for all U.S. aircraft carriers to follow, while many World War II carriers were subsequently converted to the new design. In addition, other nations also began to see the merits of such a flight deck layout.

uss independence refuels uss william v pratt
Crewman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV 62) stand by to refuel the guided missile destroyer USS William V. Pratt (DDG 44) off the Virginia Capes in 1988. Image: NARA

Not all of the elements employed with the Forrestal-class proved to be entirely perfected, however.

Most notably this was the positioning of the elevators, which were determined to be badly arranged for aircraft handling — notably due to the location of the portside elevator. Located at the fore end of the angled deck, it was in the path of the launch path of aircraft from the number three and the number four catapults, as well as the landing path.

f-14 approaches the uss ranger
An F-14A Tomcat of Fighter Squadron 2 (VF-2) turns toward the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) in mid-1987. An Iowa-class battleship is on the Ranger’s port side. Image: NARA

The flight deck also utilized a different layout than the later aircraft carriers, with the island placed closer to the bow. It is simply a fact that the Nimitz-class and Gerald R. Ford-class designs benefitted from the lessons learned with the Forrestal-class supercarriers.

lone ranger with the uss ranger at naval station north island
Mascot of the USS Ranger (CV-61), the Lone Ranger rides along the pier as the aircraft carrier arrived in port. The Ranger returned home following deployment during Operation Desert Storm. Image: NARA

The United States Navy had originally planned for eight ships of the Forrestal class, but as improvements in the original Forrestal design were incorporated into the last four to be built, those were designated as the separate Kitty Hawk class.

The USS Forrestal In Service

Commissioned on October 1, 1955, at Newport News, Virginia, as the U.S. Navy’s first supercarrier, CVA-59 — “attack aircraft carrier” and later just redesignated as CV-59 — the flattop initially operated in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and provided support during the Lebanon crisis in 1958. 

f-4 phantom ii launches from the uss forrestal in 1975
The crew of the USS Forrestal launches a F-4 Phantom II of Fighter Squadron 74 (VF-74.) Image: NARA

USS Forrestal subsequently was deployed numerous times to the Mediterranean until 1966 when she received an overhaul. She was ordered to the Pacific during the Vietnam War to provide additional airpower, and it was on July 29, 1967, that tragedy struck when she suffered a huge fire on her flight deck, resulting in the loss of more than 130 men and numerous aircraft.

Due to the accident, the U.S. Navy learned fire-fighting lessons that are now in practice today.

uss forrestal
USS Forrestal (CV 59) underway approximately one month after fires and explosions damaged the ship leaving 132 crewmen dead, 62 injured, and two missing in waters off Vietnam. Image: NARA

The original U.S. Navy supercarrier was repaired in 1968 and returned to the Mediterranean for multiple deployments over the next seven years. Reclassified as CV-59 in 1975, USS Forrestal served as the host ship for the United States Bicentennial celebrations in July 1976 in New York City.

suzanne somers entertaining sailors on uss ranger
Actress Suzanne Somers entertains the crew aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) in late 1981. Image: NARA

USS Forrestal then played a major role in confronting Libyan aggression in March 1981, and the vessel received a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) upgrade from 1983-85. In the late 1980s, she participated in Operation Earnest Will protecting merchant tankers in the Middle East region and was on standby in the Atlantic Ocean during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After providing air support during Operation Provide Comfort, which provided assistance to the Iraqi Kurds in 1991, she became a training carrier and was redesignated AVT-59.

arming an f-14 on the uss independence
Sailors from Forrestal-Class, USS Independence (CV-62) ordnance department load an AIM-54 Phoenix missile on the wings of an F-14 fighter before a mission in the Arabian Sea. Image: NARA

USS Forrestal was decommissioned in September 1993 after nearly four decades in service. Efforts to preserve the vessel as a museum ship proved unsuccessful, and sadly she was broken up in Brownsville, Texas, with the work being completed in December 2015.

uss forrestal transitting the suez canal in 1988
The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) transits the Suez Canal in 1988. A formation of crewmen spells out “108” to signify that the ship has been at sea for 108 consecutive days. Image: NARA

However, she was heavily stripped to support the rest of the carrier fleet, with her four bronze propellers installed on the Nimitz-class carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), while her 30-ton anchors are now on the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). 

hangar deck of uss ranger with planes
An overall view of aircraft, equipment and supplies in the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV 61) while operating off the coast of Southern California. Image: NARA

There were also plans to sink the ship as an artificial reef, but at issue was that many design elements of the Forrestal-class led directly to current supercarriers — and there were fears that divers could learn too much about the Navy’s vessels. That fact also contributed to why none of her sister vessels were preserved as museum ships or used as reefs.

End of the Forrestal-class

The last of the Forrestal-class supercarriers, USS Independence, was also heavily stripped to support the active carrier fleet — notably the Kitty Hawk-class, while her anchors were transferred to the Nimitz-class USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77).

uss forrestal sails past the statue of liberty
The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) moves past the Statue of Liberty as it approaches the Hudson River to visit New York City for Fleet Week ’89. Image: PH2 Richard/U.S. Navy

She then made a final voyage to Brownsville, Texas, in the spring of 2017. She arrived to a hero’s welcome and was subsequently broken up. Scrapping was completed in early 2019, officially marking the end of the United States Navy’s first class of massive flattops.

Editor’s Note: Please be sure to check out The Armory Life Forum, where you can comment about our daily articles, as well as just talk guns and gear. Click the “Go To Forum Thread” link below to jump in and discuss this article and much more!

Join the Discussion

Go to forum thread

Continue Reading
Did you enjoy this article?

Springfield Armory® recommends you seek qualified and competent training from a certified instructor prior to handling any firearm and be sure to read your owner’s manual. These articles and videos are considered to be suggestions and not recommendations from Springfield Armory. The views and opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Springfield Armory.

Product prices mentioned in articles and videos are current as of the date of publication.

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from here.

© 2024 Springfield Armory. All rights reserved.

Springfield Armory

No account? Create One

Create Account

Have an account?