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Aircraft Carrier Landing



You're cruising along at 140 mph, enjoying the incredible view of endless blue sky and sea from the cockpit of your lean, mean flying machine. Suddenly you hear the voice of the carrier's flight controller crackle over the radio: "Bring it in now!" You must land your carrier onboard delivery (COD) aircraft on a 1,000-foot-long landing strip that looks more like a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. Once you determine the ship's exact coordinates, you listen for instructions from the landing signal officer (LSO). You monitor themeatball and see that you're coming in right on target. You've practiced for hours in a flight simulator, performed real landings on the 10,000-foot runway at the naval base, and then managed to land on the naval base's 700-foot practice runway, equipped with arresting cables. But this first landing on a carrier at sea is nerve-racking! You must depend on physics to land on the "postage stamp." Your COD weighs about 50,000 pounds and you'll be flying at about 95 mph relative to the carrier deck when you land. Your aircraft has about twice the momentum of a 50,000-pound truck speeding down the highway at 50 mph. The 1,000-foot runway doesn't give you enough room to use brakes to slow down, so you'll use the set of four arresting cables stretched across the deck. Your COD's tailhook misses latching onto the first cable, and then misses the next one. Don't put on your brakes, though. If you miss the next two cables and you're not flying at least 120 mph, you'll fall into the ocean! You hook onto the third cable, so you reduce your power and within two seconds you've come to a complete stop. Whew! Aircraft carriers have served as warships since the early 1900s, but it was not until World War II that they played an integral role. Technology has led to an evolution in carrier design and features, and there are now four major classes of carriers, each named for the "star" ship in its class. Nimitz class carriers, such as the Dwight D. Eisenhower, cost several billion dollars to build. These "floating cities" carry up to 6,000 sailors and 100 pilots and normally stay at sea for up to six months, and even longer during wartime. The ships weigh about 80,000 tons, carry 500,000 gallons of fuel, generate power in a nuclear power plant, and make 400,000 gallons of water daily in a desalination plant. About 18,000 meals are prepared daily in the galley. You've delivered your passengers and spare parts, and now it's time to fly the COD back to the naval base for supplies. The steam catapult, powered by the carrier's nuclear power plant, jettisons you from zero to 150 mph in a little more than two seconds, at a force three times that of gravity. In no time at all, you're off into the wild blue yonder.
  • Today's aircraft carriers have more fire power than anything imaginable during WWII. How can we ensure that aircraft carrier weaponry is used appropriately by countries that operate carriers?
  • Aircraft carriers now are said to help "maintain the peace." What does that mean?


An aircraft carrier is a complex and self-contained city, and the largest carriers can stay at sea for six months or more. There are many questions to answer before you can design one of your own. For this activity, you'll need a lot of imagination and good teamwork skills. Your goal is to work in teams and as a group to design an aircraft carrier for 5,000 people who will be at sea for one month.


  • lined writing paper
  • drawing paper
  • pencils
  • markers
  • model building supplies (recycled stuff is great)
  • reference books about aircraft carriers
  • computer programs that allow you to design a city (optional, but very helpful and lots of fun)
  • one page per team that lists the main topics team members must think about:
   Team 1:  Goals, organization, and management
   Team 2:  Basic needs--energy, food, water, sleep
   Team 3:  Aircraft carrier design and maintenance
   Team 4:  Communications and navigation
   Team 5:  Everything else you need--medical services, exercise, entertainment, etc.


  • Schultz, R. (1992) Looking inside sports aerodynamics. Santa Fe: John Muir
  • Terzibaschitsch, S. (1989) Aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. Annapolis,
    MD: Naval Institute Press.

Computer Resources

Pacific strike. (1994) Austin: Origin Systems, Inc. (CD-ROM for

SimCity. (1989) Orinda, CA: Maxis. (Macintosh and MS-DOS)

SimTown. (1994) Orinda, CA: Maxis. (CD-ROM for Macintosh, Windows, and

TFX: Tactical fighter experiment. (1993) San Jose, CA: Ocean of America.
(interactive computer flight simulator on CD-ROM for Windows and

Additional sources of information

Public Inquiries, Office of Information
Department of the Navy
The Pentagon, Room 2E 335
Washington, DC 20350-1200