Aircraft carriers are the largest ships in the United States Navy. Intended to deploy and recover aircraft at sea, the Navy began construction and commission of these sea-going giants shortly after airplanes were invented. These large ships provide a platform to deploy airplanes, jets, and helicopters, as well as to land for refueling and supplies. Aircraft carriers allow for military opoerations involving aircraft at sea without requiring return to land.
The United States has used aircraft carriers in every modern war. Unfortunately for naval personnel, the risk asbestos exposure was high. Today, most asbestos has been removed from naval vessels, however risk of exposure remains. Navy veterans who have suffered from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can get support and resources for treatment through the Veterans Administration.
About Aircraft Carriers and Designations
The strategic importance of aircraft carriers in the U.S. military cannot be overstated. The massive size of these ships allow them to act as mobile airbases, efficiently deploying and refueling aircraft during military operations. Aircraft carriers measure over 1,000 feet long and can transport thousands of military personnel at a time.
The official navy designation for aircraft carriers is CV class. They evolved from high-speed cruisers, which were first launched in 1910. Over time, designated aircraft carriers were built with many different specializations. These specializations include:
- 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 Wright brothers flew the first manned aircraft in Kitty Hawk, NC, the United States Navy began using ships to launch and recover military aircraft. The navy cruiser, USS Birmingham, was the first ship to do this. Civilian Eugene Ely made the first takeoff of an aircraft from this warship. Later, Ely made the first landing on another warship, the USS Pennsylvania. During World War I there were three ships in the navy capable of deploying and recovering aircraft, although these were not classified as 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. The USS Lexington was converted from a cruiser and became the second aircraft carrier used. The first aircraft carrier to be built from scratch was the USS Ranger, built in 1931.
Aircraft carriers crucial 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 in history, aircraft carriers would become crucial members of modern naval fleets. During World War II, carriers began engaging in expanded operations, including carrier-to-carrier battles and amphibious landing support.
During the Korean War, more upgrades and improvements were made to aircraft carriers. These modifications included angled flight decks, aircraft catapults, and deck elevators. Aircraft carriers continued to play a meaningful role in the years following the Korean War, continuing through the Vietnam War. These ships also aided in the recovery of Apollo astronauts after landing in the ocean. Today, aircraft carriers continue to hold a place of significance in the U.S. Navy, promoting U.S. operations and peace missions around the globe.
Asbestos Use on Aircraft Carriers
Like many ships used in the U.S. Navy, aircraft carriers were once fraught with asbestos. Even today, many of these ships still contain asbestos materials. Asbestos was used for decades because of its light weight, effective insulation, and fire resistance. These are essential 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.
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 was built and used at a time when asbestos common in many industries. These carriers contained asbestos in gaskets, insulation, turbines, sealants, pumps, and many other components.
Another example of documented and extensive asbestos use 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. All areas of the ships contained asbestos, including areas 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 large amounts of asbestos on these ships, risks were high. Asbestos fibers could be released into the air when materials were damaged. Inhalation of these fibers, especially in enclosed ship spaces, was a common risk. Inhaled fibers could potentially lead the development of asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, as asbestosis. Often, these conditions did not present symptoms until decades after exposure.
Veterans who were at the greatest risk for exposure were those maintaining or repairing components on the ship that contained asbestos. Boiler room workers, engine room workers, pipe fitters, and those who built or repaired aircraft carriers in shipyards are most at risk of exposure.
Aircraft Carriers with Asbestos
U.S. Navy veterans were at risk of asbestos exposure. Even current military personnel are at some level of risk since many ships are not completely free of asbestos. The management of asbestos has changed dramatically, making personnel much safer than in the past. U.S. aircraft carriers known to have contained 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 naval vessel that used asbestos in construction and maintenance. If you are a veteran who served on one of these ships, you may have been exposed to asbestos. If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos related illness connected to your military service, you may be eligible for veteran assistance through the VA.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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