U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft supercarriers are comprised of over one billion individual parts and components. Despite this, when you break them down into their base functions, they are pretty easy to understand. They are tasked with four main functions: to transport aircraft overseas, launch and land aircraft, serve as a mobile command center for military operation, and house all the men and women stationed on the carrier. To carry out these tasks, each part of the carrier has an important job.
The first part of the aircraft carrier is the flight deck. This is the surface on which the carrier’s aircraft take off and land. Think of it as a miniature airfield on the sea. On smaller naval ships whose primary mission is not aviation, the landing area for helicopters and VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft is also called the flight deck. Most modern carriers feature a specific type of flight deck called an ‘angled flight deck’ in which the aft part of the deck is wider and a separate runway is positioned at an angle. This design allows high-speed jet engine aircraft to land and take off due to the extra room provided.
Below the flight deck is the second main part of an aircraft carrier, the hangar deck. This is the area where aircraft are stored while not in service. The hangar deck is located underneath the galley, two decks below the flight deck. It is more than two-thirds the length of the entire ship and can store over 60 aircraft, spare engines, fuel tanks and other heavy equipment. Atop the flight deck is the command center for flight-deck operations and the ship as a whole. This part of the carrier is known as the island. The island is approximately 150 feet tall, but only about 20 feet wide at its base. The island widens the higher up it goes, but must be thin at the base to provide aircraft, other objects, and people on the flight deck with sufficient room.
The driving force of an aircraft carrier is the combination of the power plant and propulsion system. Nimitz-class carriers are powered by two A4W nuclear reactors housed in separate compartments. The steam from these reactors spins four propeller shafts, providing the carrier with 260,000 brake horsepower and a top speed of 30 knots. The reactors heat water through nuclear fission and subsequently pass the heated water through turbines which power the propeller shafts.
The final main part of an aircraft carrier is the hull. The aircraft hull, constructed of steel plates, is the body of the carrier that floats in the water. The portion of the hull beneath the water is round and narrow to help create buoyancy, while the area above water is flushed out to provide the basis of the wide flight deck. The lower section of the hull has two layers of steel plates - a configuration known as a double bottom. This is to provide supplemental protection from torpedos or collisions with other ships. If the first layer is compromised, the second layer prevents significant leakage.
Other important parts of an aircraft carrier include small-scale infrastructure systems to provide food and fresh water and deal with things like sewage, trash, and mail as well as carrier-based ratio, television, and newspaper outlets. Modern aircraft carriers could almost be considered floating cities. Their reliable function in spite of their complexity is a triumph of engineering.
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