show #1202

Aircraft Carrier

How do aircraft traveling at 140 mph manage to land on a carrier runway?

Peggy makes a quick stop on an aircraft carrier. Segment length: 8:00


Insights and Connections



Main Activity

Try this


You're cruising along at 140 mph, enjoying the incredible view of endless blue sky and sea from the cockpit of your lean, mean flying machine. Suddenly you hear the voice of the carrier's flight controller crackle over the radio: "Bring it in now!"

You must land your carrier onboard delivery (COD) aircraft on a 1,000-foot-long landing strip that looks more like a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. Once you determine the ship's exact coordinates, you listen for instructions from the landing signal officer (LSO). You monitor the meatball and see that you're coming in right on target. You've practiced for hours in a flight simulator, performed real landings on the 10,000-foot runway at the naval base, and then managed to land on the naval base's 700-foot practice runway, equipped with arresting cables. But this first landing on a carrier at sea is nerve-racking!

You must depend on physics to land on the "postage stamp." Your COD weighs about 50,000 pounds and you'll be flying at about 95 mph relative to the carrier deck when you land. Your aircraft has about twice the momentum of a 50,000-pound truck speeding down the highway at 50 mph. The 1,000-foot runway doesn't give you enough room to use brakes to slow down, so you'll use the set of four arresting cables stretched across the deck.

Your COD's tailhook misses latching onto the first cable, and then misses the next one. Don't put on your brakes, though. If you miss the next two cables and you're not flying at least 120 mph, you'll fall into the ocean! You hook onto the third cable, so you reduce your power and within two seconds you've come to a complete stop. Whew!

Aircraft carriers have served as warships since the early 1900s, but it was not until World War II that they played an integral role. Technology has led to an evolution in carrier design and features, and there are now four major classes of carriers, each named for the "star" ship in its class. Nimitz class carriers, such as the Dwight D. Eisenhower, cost several billion dollars to build. These "floating cities" carry up to 6,000 sailors and 100 pilots and normally stay at sea for up to six months, and even longer during wartime. The ships weigh about 80,000 tons, carry 500,000 gallons of fuel, generate power in a nuclear power plant, and make 400,000 gallons of water daily in a desalinationplant. About 18,000 meals are prepared daily in the galley.

You've delivered your passengers and spare parts, and now it's time to fly the COD back to the naval base for supplies. The steam catapult, powered by the carrier's nuclear power plant, jettisons you from zero to 150 mph in a little more than two seconds, at a force three times that of gravity. In no time at all, you're off into the wild blue yonder.


arresting cables set of four metal cables stretched across a carrier's deck to stop planes

COD acronym for carrier onboard delivery. Name used for the 29-seat C-2 transport plane that takes crews, cargo, and mail on and off a naval ship.

desalination removal of salt from sea water by boiling it and recondensing it into fresh water

flight simulator computer program that allows students to experience flight without leaving land

LSO acronym for landing signal officer. The LSO's job is to help pilots land safely.

meatball central light display on the deck of the aircraft carrier, used to guide pilots as they land

momentum a measure of the motion of a moving object, which equals the product of its mass (its size, not weight) and velocity (its speed in a particular direction, not just how fast it's going)

postage stamp pilots' nickname for aircraft carriers

tailhook hook on bottom of aircraft that attaches to the arresting cables on deck during landing


Computer Resources

Pacific strike. (1994) Austin: Origin Systems, Inc. (CD-ROM for

SimCity. (1989) Orinda, CA: Maxis. (Macintosh and MS-DOS)

SimTown. (1994) Orinda, CA: Maxis. (CD-ROM for Macintosh, Windows, and

TFX: Tactical fighter experiment. (1993) San Jose, CA: Ocean of America.
(interactive computer flight simulator on CD-ROM for Windows and

Additional sources of information

Public Inquiries, Office of Information Department of the Navy The Pentagon, Room 2E 335 Washington, DC 20350-1200

Floating City

Design an aircraft carrier that can take 5,000 sailors to sea for one month.


An aircraft carrier is a complex and self-contained city, and the largest carriers can stay at sea for six months or more. There are many questions to answer before you can design one of your own. For this activity, you'll need a lot of imagination and good teamwork skills. Your goal is to work in teams and as a group to design an aircraft carrier for 5,000 people who will be at sea for one month.


	Team 1:  Goals, organization, and management
	Team 2:  Basic needs--energy, food, water, sleep
	Team 3:  Aircraft carrier design and maintenance
	Team 4:  Communications and navigation
	Team 5:  Everything else you need--medical services, exercise,
			     entertainment, etc.

  1. Form five teams with at least two people per team.
  2. Assign each team to a subject area.
  3. Brainstorm to get ideas and specific questions that each team can work on.
  4. Work as teams to come up with as many ideas as you can while you consider each question. Write or draw your answers and ideas.
  5. Meet as a group so that each team can present its ideas. Other teams should ask questions or make suggestions in areas where there are overlapping concerns. For example, the design is directly related to how much food and water needs to be prepared and stored.
  6. Go back to your teams and rework your ideas based on input from the other teams.
  7. Create a three-dimensional model and write a summary of each team's ideas.


  1. What kinds of scientists and other specialists would you need to design a real aircraft carrier? Why?
  2. What was the most difficult thing for your team to decide? What were the hardest things for the whole group to decide? What topics had the most in common with others? Did this make it harder or easier to make decisions?


Distances at sea are measured in nautical miles. One nautical mile equals 1.85 km. Speed is measured by knots, or how many nautical miles are covered per hour. On a map, find the distance between Honolulu and San Francisco, and then calculate the distance in nautical miles. How long would it take a ship to go from Honolulu to San Francisco traveling at 10 knots? 50 knots?


An aircraft carrier can use as much as 1.5 million liters (400,000 gallons) of water daily. How much is that? Calculate how many Olympic-size swimming pools this amount could fill, or how many linear feet of shelf space it would take to store it in one-liter containers.
Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.