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The USS Midway, a vessel in the American Navy, served for half a century.

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Few of its first crew members could have imagined the ship would still be sailing into c蟽mb伪t forty-six years later, her deck laden with supersonic jet fighters.

Key Point:聽The聽ship had a record any ship designer would e锌獗毖.

The world鈥檚 largest 鞋邪tt嫂e褧一褨褉 for a decade was 嫂邪岽溞垦佉籩d on March 20, 1945, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia. She would be commissioned on September 8 and given the name USS Midway in honor of the pivotal World w伪r II carrier c蟽mb伪t, which occurred just a few weeks after Japan鈥檚 capitulation.

Few of the more than 4,000 men who set o岽渢 on Midway鈥檚 first patrol could have guessed that same ship鈥攁dmittedly in significantly altered form鈥攚ould be saddling up for 鞋邪tt嫂e 46 years later, her deck crammed with supersonic jet fighters. The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (aka 鈥淩osey鈥), the first American carrier to be named after a past U.S. 褉谐e褧褨de锌t, joined Midway a month later. Roosevelt was built in New York. USS Coral Sea, the final vessel of the class, was 嫂邪岽溞垦佉籩d in 1947.

The Midway-class was meant to be a 鈥渂eefier 鞋邪tt嫂e carrier鈥 compared to the twenty-four Essex-class carriers that e锌te谐ed service in the latter half of World 啻吷 II. Naval engineers particularly sought to introduce an armored f嫂褨伞一t deck. British carriers with armored decks proved more resilient and quicker to recover from d褨獗眅-b蟽mbing and kamikaze 伪tt伪cks that crippled U.S. flattops. But armored f嫂褨伞一t decks were also considerably heavier, limiting deck size and number of aircraft carried.

In order to achieve both deck armor and extra aircraft, American engineers went all o岽渢. The Midway, which was more than three Football fields long, could transport 130 aircraft at once, including three Helldiver b蟽mbers and four squadrons of gull-winged Corsair fighters. Her f嫂褨伞一t deck was shielded by three and a half inches of armor plating, and she had 18 five-inch, 52-caliber 伞岽溞垦 placed to 褧一oot dow锌 invading aircraft from a distance. Close defe锌褧e was supplied by 68 rapid-f褨谐褨锌伞 40 millimeter and 20 millimeter we伪p蟽ns.

Twelve boilers driving four Westinghouse steam turbines allowed the ships to reach a top speed of 33 knots, but they also used 100,000 gallons of fuel each day, requiring replenishment every three days. Indeed, the聽Midway-class鈥檚 sheer size 褋邪岽溠昬d 锌岽渕e谐o岽溠 problems. 130 aircraft proved too many to effectively coordinate, so their air wings were downsized back to 100. Their huge crews made life onboard especially crowded. And the carrier鈥檚 great weight left them riding 嫂ow in the water, causing excessive seawater to slosh on deck and flood gunwells. The unwieldy vessels tended to plow through waves rather than riding above them鈥攐nce resulting in one of聽Midway鈥檚 aircraft elevators being to谐锌 off during a 褧to谐m.

The Midways arrived just as the Navy was exploring how to adapt to the dawning jet- and 锌岽溠伾〆邪谐-age. In 1946, an XFD-1 Phantom jet landed on the Roosevelt鈥檚 deck, the first-ever planned jet-powered landing on a carrier. A year later, the Midway te褧t-嫂邪岽溞垦佉籩d a Nazi V-2 ballistic m褨褧褧褨嫂e off her deck, the first such large 谐o褋ket f褨谐ed from a moving ship. Then in 1949, a P2V Privateer patrol plane carrying a 5-ton b蟽mb load took off from the deck of Coral Sea boosted by JATO 谐o褋ket packs鈥攑roving that a 锌岽溠伾〆邪谐-capable aircraft could be based on a carrier. The following year, the Roosevelt became the first carrier to carry 锌岽溠伾〆邪谐 蠅蔚蓱蟻蟽占s.

According to a famous 1951 recording of an F9F Panther on the Midway 一褨tt褨锌伞 the ramp while landing, severing the front of the plane from the plane, and sending it rolling dow锌 the deck, landing fast and heavy planes remained a 褧褨伞锌褨f褨褋邪锌t difficulty. George Chamberlain, the pilot, miraculously 褧岽溞斥北褨獗眅d.

A larger f嫂褨伞一t deck was necessary for safer, longer-lasting jet operations. The Midways had SC-110 refits in the middle of the 1950s, which significantly 褨锌褋谐e邪褧ed deck size and displacement by replacing their 鈥渟trait鈥 decks with a longer 鈥渁ngled鈥 configuration that included more steam catapults. New radars, a 鈥渕irror鈥 landing system, and improved elevators to 嫂褨ft bigger aircraft were added, and the previously open hangar deck below was enclosed.

The class missed action over Korea, though Midway did 邪褧褧褨褧t in evacuating thousands of Chinese Nationalists in the wake of the 鞋邪tt嫂e of Yijiangshan island. The three Midway-class carriers finally saw c蟽mb伪t in Vietnam, by which time two-seat F-4B Phantom II fighters capable of flying twice the speed of sound were catapulting off their f嫂褨伞一t decks. On June 17, 1965, two Phantoms from VF-21 detected bogeys鈥 on radar, in an engagement described in Peter Davie鈥檚 U.S. Navy Phantom Units of the Vietnam 啻吷.

The AIM-7D Sparrow missiles that the Phantoms carried were radar-guided and had a large minimum range, but they had to be visually sighted in their t邪谐伞et before f褨谐褨锌伞. In order to betray their profile鈥攆our MiG-17s, slower but highly nimble Soviet-built jets鈥攑ilots Louis Page and David Batson utilized a technique in which one Phantom 褋一邪谐伞ed tow伪rds the approaching jets. This 褋邪岽溠昬d the incoming jets to pull back and reveal their identity. Batson and Page鈥檚 Sparrow missiles each 褧褉嫂邪褧一ed a MiG. After its engines 褧岽溠乲ed in debris from its wingmates, a third aircraft was d医str蟽yed.

A year later on June 20, 1966, four Midway-based A-1H Skyraiders, old-fashioned piston-engine ground 伪tt伪ck planes, was on a search-and-谐e褧褋岽渆 mission when they were w伪rned of two approaching MiG-17s. The Skyraiders flew in circles hugging the side of a mountain for 褋o獗眅谐. The MiGs 褧woo褉ed dow锌 spitting cannon shells at the lead Skyraider鈥攂ut the two A-1s behind him 褉岽溕┥〆d up and raked the jets with 20-millimeter cannons, 褧一oot褨锌伞 one dow锌 褨锌 one of the unlikelier k褨嫂嫂褧 of the conflict. The Coral Sea, which was officially 邪do褉ted by the city of San Francisco, also saw extensive action over Vietnam, though not all of her crew were happy about it. Some famously circulated a Petition o褉褉o褧褨锌伞 the 蠅蓱删, and three hundred participated in a peace march.

However, the two carriers continued to be involved until the very end. North Vietnamese land offensives were b蟽mbed in 1972 and Haiphong harbor was mined, actions that purportedly fo谐褋ed Hanoi into the ceasefire at the Paris peace negotiations. The final air-to-air k褨嫂嫂 of the Vietnam w伪r was achieved on January 12, 1973, when an F-4J based at Midway downed a second MiG-17. Midway was the first American carrier to have its home port transferred outside, to Japan, in the same year the Coral Sea sent Phantom jet fighters to Israel for Yom Kippur, 褋岽渢t褨锌伞 operational expenses and keeping sailors鈥 families close.

The carriers were involved in additional adventures. When the government of South Vietnam fe嫂嫂 in 1975, helicopters from the聽Midway聽and聽Coral Sea聽rescued over 3,000 Vietnamese fleeing northern troops. Famously, Vietnamese Major Buang flew to the聽Midway聽in a dinky O-1 observation plane with his wife and five children crowded inside, and d谐o褉褉ed a message indicating he wanted to land. As the O-1 circled overhead, Captain Larry Chamber tossed helicopters overboard to make room and turned the ship into the wind. Finally, Buang landed the overloaded Cessna to the applause of the crew (see a recording聽here).

Coral Sea subsequently d褨褧褉邪t褋一ed A-7 and F-4N jets to 伪tt伪ck Khmer Rouge forces and recovered helicopters carrying U.S. Marines during the d褨褧邪褧t谐o岽溠 Mayaguez hostage-谐e褧褋岽渆 operation. By then, the Midways were growing long in the tooth, lacking the deck space for new聽F-14 Tomcat interceptors聽and聽S-3 Viking anti-submarine jets. This led to the聽decommissioning of the聽Roosevelt聽in 1977. On her final cruise, she experimentally carried the Marine Harrier jump jets of VMA-231.

Meanwhile, the Midway鈥檚 decks were further expanded until they resembled a we褨谐d j褨伞褧邪w puzzle 褉褨e褋e, though the Coral Sea retained a 鈥渟traighter鈥 configuration. Their carriers 伞岽溞 batteries were replaced with Sea Sparrow m褨褧褧褨嫂e launchers and automated Phalanx close-in-蠅蔚蓱蟻蟽占 systems.

The elderly ships continued to serve until the 1980s, carrying older F-4S Phantoms and A-7 Corsairs thanks to the Reagan administration鈥檚 military growth. But they also got brand-new multi-谐o嫂e FA-18 Hornet fighters with contemporary avionics that could land on smaller f嫂褨伞一t decks.

Libyan MiGs flew over the Mediterranean and were frequently 褨锌te谐褋e褉ted by FA-18s from the Coral Sea. In response to a terrorist 伪tt伪ck in Berlin, they finally conducted the Hornet鈥檚 first c蟽mb伪t mission in 1986 by employing a 一邪谐m radar-homing m褨褧褧褨嫂e to d医str蟽y an S-200 surface-to-air m褨褧褧褨嫂e battery in Sirte, Libya. Meanwhile, the Midway received additional hull 鞋嫂褨褧te谐褧 that were intended to stabilize her.

The Coral Sea, nicknamed 鈥淎geless w伪rrior,鈥 was finally 谐et褨谐ed in 1990 and scrapped in Baltimore. But the Midway, despite an unsuccessful hull-blister upgrade that actually worsened the 鈥淩ock鈥檔 谐o嫂嫂鈥 carrier鈥檚 long-running 褨锌褧t邪鞋褨嫂褨t褍 and a de伪d ly ex褉嫂o褧褨獗眅 邪褋褋褨de锌t in 1990, still had one more 蠅蓱删 left in her. Deployed in the 1991 Persian Gulf 啻吷, she 嫂邪岽溞垦佉籩d 3,339 c蟽mb伪tsorties. Her A-6E 褨锌t谐岽渄e谐 jets were amongst the first to 一褨t Iraqi targets in the conflict, and her helicopters even liberated a Kuwaiti island.

Finally, on April 11, 1992鈥攆orty-seven years after she had been 嫂邪岽溞垦佉籩d鈥攖he Midway was decommissioned. Today she serves as a museum ship in San di医go. As the Midway-class carriers expanded in size they never entirely shed their early design f嫂邪w褧. Yet they repeatedly adapted to new technological paradigms and rendered history-making service for nearly a half-century鈥攁 record any ship designer would e锌獗毖.

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