Aircraft Carrier, The Floating Air Base

Photo: US.Navy –  According to Law No. 1 of 2009 concerning Aviation, an airport is an area on land and/or waters with certain boundaries used as a place for aircraft to land and take off, embarking and disembarking passengers, and loading and unloading goods equipped with aviation safety and security facilities, as well as basic facilities and other supporting facilities.

The area that has been the airport's location so far is a coastal area or other surfaces of the earth that has a fairly sloping contour to meet the requirements to be used as an airport. If used for civil/commercial aircraft operations, it is called an airport, but if used by military aircraft, it is called an airbase. However, other "areas" are also used for aircraft activities, such as airports, namely aircraft carriers.

The aircraft carrier has the primary function of a floating airbase to support the operational activities of various types of military aircraft. Currently, the aircraft carrier is only operated by the armed forces of developed countries, including the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France, India, China, and Russia. The United States has nine aircraft carriers; the UK has two (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales); France has one (Charles De Gaulle); India has one (INS Vikramaditya); China has one (Liaoning), which will only be operational in 2021; and Russia has only one (Admiral Kuznetsov).

Aircraft operated aboard aircraft carriers are military aircraft: fighter aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, transport aircraft, and military helicopters, in contrast to civil airports, which contain civil aircraft such as the Boeing B737 to the Airbus A380 series.

In this article, the author uses the US aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford CVN 78 of the American Nimitz Class type and the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to compare with civilian airports.

The USS Gerald R. Ford entered service by the US Navy in 2017. This aircraft carrier has dimensions of 333 meters long, 77 meters wide deck, 41 meters wide hull, and 75 meters high to the tip of the radar above the 'island.' To support transoceanic operations, the carrier is equipped with two nuclear reactors with a lifespan of up to 50 years (maintenance every 25 years). The CVN 78 can operate at sea for years with an unlimited sailing radius with this fuel.

On the deck and in the hull can carry up to 75 more military aircraft with various types and functions, including the F-35C Lighting II (stealth fighter) F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet (ground and air attack fighter). EA-18G Growler (fighter with electronic warfare function), E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (reconnaissance aircraft), MH-60R/S multirole helicopter, and drone.

To support the operations of the aircraft carrier and all of its aircraft, no less than 5000 crew members are needed. Every time the American carrier sails, it becomes the core fleet of the carrier battle group. It is always escorted by 1-2 cruisers of the Ticonderoga Class (aegis guided missiles cruiser), 2-3 destroyers of the Arleigh Burke Class (guided missiles destroyers), two nuclear power carriers, and a logistics supply ship.

Carrier Battle Group (Source: US Navy)

Unlike the American aircraft carriers, which always form a combat group every time they sail, the Russian aircraft carrier is designed to be more independent. With the ability to sail with only a few escort warships and logistical supply ships and is even designed to sail independently without an escort.

This difference is caused by the basic concept of performing the naval fleets of the two superpowers, which are contradictory to each other. The doctrine of naval warfare in the western bloc, represented by America, prioritizes aircraft carriers as the core of their primary defence equipment to destroy the enemy. In contrast, the Russian, as the eastern bloc representative, prefers to use swarms of submarines as the core of its defence equipment so that the Russian aircraft carrier fleet is designed to support the operations of their submarine fleet.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (Source:

Sejak bernama Uni Soviet hingga berubah nama menjadi Rusia pada tahun 1991, tercatat Rusia hanya pernah membangun dua kapal induk (Aircraft Carrier) yaitu Admiral Kuznetskov dan Varyag (setelah perpecahan Uni Soviet kapal ini menjadi milik Ukraina). Admiral Kuznetsov saat ini menjadi satu-satunya kapal induk Rusia yang masih beroperasi sedangkan Varyag dijual ke China dan saat ini telah berganti nama menjadi Liaoning.

Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov entered service by the Voyenno Morskoi Flot, Russian Navy, in 1991. This aircraft carrier has dimensions of 305 meters long, 72 meters wide deck, and 35 meters wide hull. To support transoceanic operations, the carrier is equipped with a steam turbine engine that can operate for up to 45 days.

On the deck and in the hull can carry up to 18 Sukhoi Su-33 naval flanker aircraft, 6 Mikoyan MIG 29K Naval Fulcrum aircraft, and 6 Kamov KA-31 Helix and Kamov KA-27 helicopters. With a total aircraft capacity of only half that of an American carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov only needed a crew of 2600.

All aircraft activities can be carried out on the aircraft carrier like an airport. From takeoff, landing, parking at the aircraft stand, taxiing, loading-unloading goods (primarily weapons) or passengers, ramp checks, refuelling, light maintenance to heavy maintenance. To support all these activities, there are supporting facilities with many similarities with the airport.

Fighter Plane Prepares for Takeoff aboard the Carrier (Source:

The aircraft operating on the carrier deck have a typical wingspan of less than 15 meters, which is included in reference code A. The F-18 fighter jet has a wingspan of 12.3 meters, the MIG-29 fulcrum of 11 meters, and the Sukhoi SU-33 of 14.7 meters. According to the applicable standards, a runway with reference code A requires a minimum runway length of 800 meters. The runway length is sufficient to obtain a minimum speed of aircraft with a wingspan of less than 15 meters to take off.

However, due to the limited space deck available, the American carrier added a type of catapult that could launch an aircraft from the rest position to a speed of 150 knots in just two seconds with a runway length for the takeoff of only 100 meters. Each of the American carriers is equipped with four catapults. The USS Gerald R. Ford can launch up to 40 aircraft per hour with these four catapults.

Unlike the American carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov is not equipped with catapult equipment to increase aircraft acceleration during takeoff. Instead, the carrier is equipped with a ski-jump deck at the front end of the deck. This ski-jump can increase lift and takeoff speed. In addition to the help of catapults and ski-jumps, the aircraft carrier will turn to be directed parallel to the direction of the wind to help increase the aircraft's lift during takeoff, especially when carrying a full load.

F-14 Tomcat touchdown, note the tail hook at the stern of the plane and the steel cables running through (Source: US Navy)

Landing an aircraft on an aircraft carrier's deck is the most dangerous stage of the entire flight process on an aircraft carrier. This was due to, among other things: the limited length of the deck for landing, on either side of the landing area, crowded with parked aircraft, far from alternate runways, limited aircraft fuel and the ship's deck that was always swinging in the ocean waves. If it still fails to land after going around twice and the fuel runs out quickly, there is no other alternative than the pilot being advised to jump from the plane with the ejection seat.

Landing in the daytime alone is immensely challenging the skills and guts of an aircraft carrier pilot, especially when taking off and landing at night. You can imagine the difficulties faced by pilots to land in the dark at night only guided by landing lights similar to PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator).

At airports in general, the pilot will direct the aircraft to land in the aiming area with a certain minimum angle and speed. After touchdown, the pilot will reduce the plane's speed by enforcing the flaps and entering the apron through the exit taxiway.

On the carrier, the pilot will direct the plane to land in an area of only 200 meters x 15 meters. The aircraft will be directed to an area equipped with a stretch of four steel wires spaced between steel wires as far as 30 feet. The pilot will be guided to touch down to hook the tailhook on the stern of the aircraft to one of the four steel wires.

In contrast to landing at an airport on land where the pilot will reduce the plane's speed by reverse trust, enforce flaps, etcetera, the pilot will increase speed on the aircraft carrier once the aircraft has successfully touched down. This means that if the tail hook is not attached to any of the four steel wires, the aircraft will take off again and restart the landing process from the beginning. If the tailhook is hooked, the aircraft will be held back until it stops within a distance of no more than 100 meters.

(Continued to part 2)

Ridwan Harry

Ridwan Harry

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