Aircraft carriers are the largest ships in the U.S. Navy and they began to be constructed, commissioned, and used just a few years after manned airplanes were invented. The purpose of an aircraft carrier is to deploy aircraft and to recover aircraft out at sea. These large ships provide a platform for airplanes, jets, and helicopters to land for refueling and supplies and to deploy for operations. They allow the military to operate aircraft at sea without the need to return to land.
All of the modern wars in which the U.S. has been involved relied on the use of aircraft carriers. Unfortunately for the personnel on board these large ships, the risks of working with and being exposed to asbestos were high. Today, while much of the asbestos has been removed from navy vessels, there are still risks of exposure. Veterans of the navy who have suffered from mesothelioma and other diseases because of asbestos on aircraft carriers can get support and resources through the Veterans Administration.
About Aircraft Carriers and Designations
The strategic importance of aircraft carriers in the U.S. military cannot be overstated. These massive ships allow the navy to act as mobile airbases, deploying and refueling aircraft during operations in an efficient and timely manner. These large ships are over 1,000 feet long and can carry a few thousand personnel at any given time.
The official navy designation for the class of ship to which aircraft carriers belong is CV. They evolved from the design of high-speed cruisers, which first began launching aircraft in 1910 and during World War I. Over the years, designated aircraft carriers were built as were many different specializations of the original aircraft carrier:
- Small aircraft carriers, CVL
- Large aircraft carriers, CVB
- Attack aircraft carriers, CVA
- Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, CVN
- Nuclear-powered attack aircraft carriers, CVAN
- Training aircraft carriers, CVT
- Anti-submarine warfare support aircraft carriers, CVS
- Escort helicopter aircraft carriers, CVHE
- Utility aircraft carriers, CVU
History and Use in Wars
Less than a decade after the first manned aircraft was flown by the Wright brothers, the U.S. Navy began using ships to launch and recover aircraft for military purposes. The first ship to do so was the navy cruiser, USS Birmingham, from which civilian Eugene Ely made the first takeoff of an aircraft from a warship. Later he made the first landing on a warship, the USS Pennsylvania. During World War I there were three ships in the navy that could deploy and recover aircraft, but these were not yet the modern aircraft carriers.
In 1922 Congress approved funding for the conversion of a cargo ship into the U.S. military’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. This first ship was slow and unwieldy, but it did allow aircraft to deploy and return out at sea. The second aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington was converted from a cruiser. The first aircraft carrier to be built from scratch for that purpose was the USS Ranger, built in 1931.
Aircraft carriers brought a new importance to modern warfare when Japan launched aircraft in the Pacific to attack Pearl Harbor, an action that brought about the U.S.’s entry in World War II. From this point on aircraft carriers would become crucial members of modern naval fleets. During the war carriers began engaging in expanded operations, including carrier-to-carrier battles and amphibious landing support.
During the Korean War, even more upgrades and changes were made to aircraft carriers, including angled flight decks and aircraft catapults, and deck elevators. These large ships continued to play important roles in the decades following the Korean War and during the Vietnam War. These ships were also important in recovering Apollo astronauts after landing in the ocean. Aircraft carriers continue to be important in the U.S. Navy, promoting U.S. operations and peace missions throughout the world.
Asbestos Use on Aircraft Carriers
Like many ships used in the U.S. Navy, aircraft carriers were once laden with asbestos. Even today, many of these ships still use asbestos or contain asbestos materials that were never abated. Asbestos was a material of choice for many years because it is lightweight, yet insulates well and prevents fire. These are all important properties for ocean-going vessels. Aircraft carriers contained asbestos in boilers and engine rooms as pipe insulation, in valves, pumps, gaskets, flooring and ceiling materials, and in many other components of the ships.
The Kitty Hawk class of carriers, all now decommissioned, were active between 1961 and 2009 and include the USS Constellation, USS America, and USS Kitty Hawk. This class is just one example of the use of asbestos on navy ships. Built at a time when asbestos use was heavy in many industries, they contained asbestos in gaskets, insulation, turbines, sealants, pumps, and many other components.
Another example of documented and extensive use of asbestos on aircraft carriers was the USS Enterprise. Decades-old documents describe the use of asbestos in the ship’s gaskets, tiles, insulation, feed pumps, cloth lagging, vinyl flooring, and other areas of the ship. The asbestos was found in all areas, including where sailors ate and slept.
Personnel Exposed to Asbestos on Carriers
Any personnel stationed on an aircraft carrier may have been exposed to asbestos. With so much asbestos on these ships, the risks were high that the materials would be damaged in some way. This damage can release asbestos fibers into the air. Personnel may then have inhaled those fibers. In the enclosed space of a ship, this is particularly harmful. The inhaled fibers put everyone at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses in subsequent decades: mesothelioma, lung cancer, as asbestosis.
Veterans today who were at the greatest risk for exposure were those who maintained or repaired components on the ship that contained asbestos, such as boiler room workers, engine room workers, pipefitters, and those who worked in the shipyards building and repairing aircraft carriers.
Aircraft Carriers with Asbestos
U.S. Navy veterans were put at risk of being exposed to asbestos. Even those serving today are at some level of risk because most ships are not totally free of asbestos. The way it is managed has changed drastically, though, and personnel on carriers are much safer than they were in the past. U.S. aircraft carriers that were known to have asbestos include:
- USS America, commissioned 1965, scuttled
- USS Antietam, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Bataan, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Belleau Wood, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Bennington, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Boxer, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Bunker Hill, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Cabot, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Carl Vinson, commissioned 1981, active
- USS Constellation, commissioned 1961, scrapped
- USS Coral Sea, commissioned 1947, scrapped
- USS Cowpens, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, commissioned 1977, active
- USS Enterprise, commissioned 1938, scrapped
- USS Enterprise, commissioned 1961, active
- USS Essex, commissioned 1942, scrapped
- USS Forestall, commissioned 1955, scrapped
- USS Franklin, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Hancock, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Hornet, commissioned 1941, sunk
- USS Hornet, commissioned 1942, museum
- USS Independence, commissioned 1943, scuttled
- USS Intrepid, commissioned 1943, museum
- USS John F. Kennedy, commissioned 1968, decommissioned
- USS Kearsarge, commissioned 1946, scrapped
- USS Kitty Hawk, commissioned 1961, decommissioned
- USS Lake Champlain, commissioned , scrapped
- USS Langley, commissioned 1942, scrapped
- USS Lexington, commissioned 1943, museum
- USS Leyte, commissioned 1946, scrapped
- USS Midway, commissioned 1945, museum
- USS Monterey, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Nimitz, commissioned 1975, active
- USS Oriskany, commissioned 1950, scuttled
- USS Philippine Sea, commissioned 1946, scrapped
- USS Princeton, commissioned 1943, sunk
- USS Randolph , commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Ranger, commissioned 1957, scrapped
- USS Saipan, commissioned 1946 scrapped
- USS San Jacinto, commissioned 1943, scrapped
- USS Saratoga, commissioned 1956, decommissioned
- USS Shangri-La, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Tarawa, commissioned 1945, scrapped
- USS Ticonderoga, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Valley Forge, commissioned 1946, scrapped
- USS Wasp, commissioned 1944, scrapped
- USS Wright, commissioned 1946, scrapped
- USS Yorktown, commissioned 1943, museum
Aircraft carriers are just one type of many U.S. Navy ships that used asbestos in their construction and maintenance. If you are a navy veteran who served on any one of these ships, you may have been exposed to asbestos. If you got sick with an asbestos related illness and can connect it to your service in the military you may be eligible for veteran assistance through the VA.
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