These are Truly the 5 Best Aircraft Carriers: Subsequent to an article on the 5 Worst Aircraft Carriers of All Time, it would only be logical for the sake of balance to do a piece on the 5 Best Aircraft Carriers of All-Time.
I decided this time to draw a little bit on the expertise of a friend of mine who served on carriers from 1979 to 1982, retired Lt. Cdr. Russell King, USNR. Admittedly, this’ll still be a somewhat subjective list, but regardless…
5 Best Aircraft Carriers – Hiryū
Lest anybody accuse us of being American ally-centric, it always pays to remember former SECDEF Jim Mattis’s sobering reminder that “The enemy gets a vote.” With that in mind, one can certainly make a case for casting that vote on behalf of a WWII Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carrier, the Hiryū (飛龍, “Flying Dragon”). Even before Imperial Japan officially entered into the Second World War, Hiryū’s crew was “blooded” in combat, as her aircraft participated in the September 1940 invasion of French Indochina. Then of course came the vessel’s role as a key participant in the Pearl Harbor raid, followed shortly thereafter by Wake Island, and the conquest of the Dutch East Indies.
Last but not least, there’s the Battle of Midway. Surviving the initial onslaught that annihilated her fellow IJN carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū, the “Flying Dragon” got in a few final licks before herself being finally sunk by the USN Douglas Dauntless dive bombers; her planes severely damaged the USS Yorktown, setting the stage for the “Fighting Lady” to be finished off by the IJN submarine I-168.
5 Best Aircraft Carriers – USS Enterprise (CV-6)
Speaking of the Yorktown, one of her sister ships is the next vessel to make this list. Quoth Lt. Cdr. King, “Ultimately, the best aircraft carrier is the one that facilitates the achievement of the best positive strategic objectives. The carrier that appeared to do the most to win WW2 is the Yorktown class USS Enterprise (CV-6).” My 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu would agree with Russ:
“Launched in 1936, she was also one of only three carriers…commissioned before the war to survive to see the defeat of the Empire of Japan. CV-6 was truly one of the most storied warships of the Second World War… CV-6 participated in more major actions against the Imperial Japanese Navy than any other U.S. warship… By the end of the Second World War, her aircraft and guns had shot down 911 enemy planes, sunk 71 ships, and damaged or destroyed another 192 vessels.”
Pretty hard to argue against those credentials. In a testament to “The Big E’s” survivability, she was erroneously declared sunk by Hideki Tojo’s propaganda machine on three separate occasions, thus earning the additional nickname of “The Grey Ghost” (not to be confused with the Queen Mary). And from a pop culture standpoint, there’s that whole namesake of a certain starship from a certain sci-fi franchise.
5 Best Aircraft Carriers – USS Midway (CV-41)
Russ King is especially well-qualified to comment on this one: “I served on the USS Midway (CV-41), which was active for more years than most others, and was probably the most forward deployed carrier of the Cold War, with the best-trained pilots. She’s also the ‘moneymaker,’ when you consider her status as a museum ship.” (emphasis added)
USS Midway indeed was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century faithfully serving from 1946 to 1992. She just missed out on WWII, but saw plenty of action in other conflicts, such as (1) the first and last MiG shootdowns of the Vietnam War and (2) serving as flagship of Persian Gulf air operations during Operation Desert Storm. Some additional firsts attained by Midway and her crews: via Operation Frostbite, the first carrier to operate extensively in the sub-Arctic; first aircraft carrier home-ported in a foreign country (Yokosuka, Japan); and Operation Sandy, the only successful launch of a German V-2 rocket from a ship, ushering in the dawn of naval missile warfare.
5 Best Aircraft Carriers – HMS Ark Royal (Pennant #91)
The aircraft carrier that James Bond served on, need we say more? Well, okay; besides launching the career of the eventual World’s Most Famous Secret Agent, Ark Royal had a pretty remarkable real-world history as well. Britain’s first purpose-built fleet carrier, she had a short lifespan of just under three years from her December 1938 commissioning to her November 1941 sinking by the Kriegsmarine’s U-81. Yet in that short time, she accomplished a lot, especially the participation in the sinking of the feared German battleship Bismarck. Ark Royal also played an indirect role in the destruction of the pocket battleship Graf Spee, joined in the first U-boat kill of the war, and proved essential in protecting supply convoys to Malta.
No wonder the Royal Navy still commemorates her loss every year.
5 Best Aircraft Carriers – HMS Hermes (Pennant #R12)
Truthfully, HMS Invincible could just as easily be listed here, since both she and Hermes provided roughly equal contributions of their Sea Harriers to the total domination of the Argentine Air Force’s A-4 Skyhawks – to the tune of a 23:0 kill ratio – in Britain’s smashing victory during the Falklands War (“Guerra de las Malvinas”) in 1982. But I’m giving the very slight nod to Hermes because she also served as the flagship of Her Majesty’s Forces during that conflict. She went on to have a second life with the Indian Navy INS Viraat until 2017, when she was replaced by the not-so-illustrious INS Vikramaditya.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.