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Deck-level view of the catapult aboard USS Hornet (CV-12).

An aircraft catapult is a device used to launch aircraft from ships—in particular aircraft carriers—as a form of assisted take off. It consists of a track built into the flight deck, below which is a large piston or shuttle that is attached through the track to the nose gear of the aircraft.

Older aircraft did not have a launch bar integrated in the nose gear; instead, a wire rope called a catapult bridle was attached to the aircraft and the catapult shuttle. The ramps at the catapult ends on older carriers were used to catch these ropes so they could be reused; bridles have not been used on aircraft since the end of the Cold War and all carriers commissioned since then have not had the ramps. The last carrier commissioned with a bridle catcher was USS Carl Vinson; starting with USS Theodore Roosevelt the ramps were deleted. During Refueling and Comprehensive Overhaul refits in the late 1990s–early 2000s, the bridle catchers were removed from the first three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. USS Enterprise is the last operational carrier with the ramps still attached.

At launch, a release bar holds the aircraft in place as steam pressure builds up, then breaks (or "releases"; older models used a pin that sheared), freeing the piston to pull the aircraft along the deck at high speed. Within about two to four seconds, aircraft velocity plus apparent wind speed (ship's speed plus "natural" wind) will be sufficient to allow an aircraft to fly away, even after losing one engine.




First record flight using a catapult

Samuel Pierpont Langley's catapult and houseboat (1903)

Aviation pioneer Samuel Langley used a spring operated catapult to launch his successful flying models and his failed aerodrome of 1903.[7] Likewise the Wright Brothers beginning in 1904 used a weight and derrick styled catapult to assist their early aircraft with a takeoff in a limited space.

On 31 July 1912, Theodore Gordon Ellyson ("Spuds" as he was known), became the first person to be launched from the experimental catapult system. The U.S. Navy had perfecting an air-compressed catapult system and mounted it on the Santee Dock in Annapolis. The first attempt nearly killed Lt. Ellyson when the plane left the ramp with its nose pointing upward and it caught a crosswind, pushing the plane into the water. Ellyson was able to escape from the wreckage unhurt. On 12 November 1912, Lt. Ellyson made history as the Navy’s first successful catapult launch, from a stationary coal barge. On 5 November 1915, Lt. Cdr. H. C. Mustin made the first catapult launch from a moving ship.[1][2][3][4][5]

Interwar and World War II

Supermarine Walrus being launched from the catapult of HMS Bermuda (1943)

Up to and during World War II most catapults were hydraulic. Some carriers were completed before and during World War II with catapults on the hangar deck that fired athwartships, but they were unpopular due to their short run, low clearance of the hangar decks, inability to add the ship's forward speed to the aircraft's airspeed for takeoff, and lower clearance from the water (conditions which afforded pilots far less margin for error in the first moments of flight). They were mostly used for experimental purposes, and their use was entirely discontinued during the latter half of the war.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many naval vessels apart from aircraft carriers carried float planes, seaplanes or amphibians for reconnaissance and spotting. They were catapult-launched, and landed on the sea alongside for recovery by crane. There were submarine aircraft carriers, and some Japanese submarines used them for offensive operations also. The first launch off a Royal Navy battlecruiser was from HMAS Australia on 8 March 1918. Subsequently many RN ships carried a catapult and from one to four aircraft; battleships or battlecruisers like the HMS Prince of Wales carried four aircraft and HMS Rodney carried two, while smaller warships like the cruiser HMNZS Leander carried one. The aircraft carried were the Fairey Seafox or Supermarine Walrus. Some like HMS Nelson did not use a catapult, and the aircraft was lowered onto the sea for takeoff. Some had their aircraft and catapult removed during WWII eg HMS Duke of York, or before (HMS Ramillies).

During World War II a number of armed merchantmen, known as CAM ships ("catapult armed merchantmen") with rocket-driven catapults were built for convoy escort duties because of a shortage of escort carriers. They carried a Hawker Sea Hurricane, dubbed a "Hurricat" or "Catafighter", and the pilot bailed out unless he could fly to land.

Steam catapult

Elements of the catapult of Charles de Gaulle, disassembled during her refit in 2008

Although German Lufthansa had used seaplane tenders that used engine steam to launch their Dornier transatlantic mailplanes as early as 1933,[6] the modern steam catapult was a British invention [7]. The use of steam to launch aircraft was suggested by Commander Colin C. Mitchell RNVR[8], and trials on HMS Perseus from 1950 showed its effectiveness. Navies introduced steam catapults, capable of launching the heavier jet fighters, in the mid-1950s. Powder-driven catapults were also contemplated, and would have been powerful enough, but would also have introduced far greater stresses on the airframes and may have been unsuitable for long use.

Nations that have retained large aircraft carriers and high performance CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) (the United States Navy, Brazilian Navy, and French Navy) are still, out of necessity, using catapults. Other navies operate STOVL aircraft, such the Sea Harrier or AV-8B Harrier II, which do not require catapult assistance, from smaller and less costly ships. The Russian Su-33 "Flanker-D" can take off from aircraft carriers without a catapult, albeit at a reduced fuel and armament load. U.S. Navy tactical aircraft use catapults to launch with a heavier warload than would otherwise be possible. Larger planes, such as the E-2 Hawkeye and S-3 Viking, require a catapult shot, inasmuch as their thrust-to-weight ratio is too low for a conventional rolling takeoff on a carrier deck.


SEM no 49 catapulting off Charles de Gaulle in June 2007. Teams of the catapult crew signal to the pilot the stage of the preparations.

The commonly-used steam catapult relies on the availability of large quantities of high-pressure steam- found in the vast majority of 20th century capital ships. The steam charges a steam accumulator so that it may be released faster than it can be produced by the ship.

The steam catapult consists of two slotted cylinders similar in principle to those used by the Clegg & Samuda atmospheric railway. The cylinders—typically 18 inches in diameter—contain free pistons connected to a shuttle which protrudes through a slot in the flight deck. The nosewheel of the aircraft to be launched is attached to the shuttle by a launch bar.

On completion of the launch the piston is traveling at high speed and would cause damage if not stopped in a controlled fashion. This is done by a water brake, which is a horizontal dashpot into which sea water is pumped with a swirling action as fast as it can flow out of the open end. The combination of the slight compressibility of the aerated water, the restriction as the water is expelled from the dashpot and the force produced by the expelled water hitting the front of the piston assembly itself serves to absorb the energy of the piston without damage. At that point a return mechanism readies the piston and shuttle for the next launch.


The size and manpower requirements of steam catapults place limits on their capabilities. A newer approach is the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Electromagnetic catapults place less stress on the aircraft and offer more control during the launch by allowing gradual and continual acceleration. Electromagnetic catapults are also anticipated to require significantly less maintenance due to the use of solid state components.[9] At the beginning of the 21st century, navies started experimenting with catapults powered by linear induction motors and electromagnets. EMALs would be more energy efficient on nuclear powered aircraft carriers and would alleviate some of the dangers posed by using pressurized steam. On gas-turbine powered ships, an electromagnetic catapult would eliminate the need for a separate steam boiler for generating catapult steam. The U.S. Navy's upcoming Gerald R. Ford class carrier includes electromagnetic catapults in its design.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ [3]
  4. ^ [4]
  5. ^ [5]
  6. ^ Jürgen Rosenstock, Flugboote über dem Atlantik, Bruckmann Verlag Munich
  7. ^ Herbert M. Friedman and Ada Kera Friedman, "Shot Into the Air", Invention & Technology Magazine, 21, no. 4 (Spring 2006).
  8. ^ Friedman ibid.
  9. ^ [6]


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