Active versus reserve aircraft on the Yorktown class

Robert Morgan Post on Yorktown airgroups separated out of the "Debunking Slade & Worth's essays" section.


Overall, I really respect your analysis. One area I would debate, however, regards the load out of the Yorktowns in the early war period. The spares were usually pretty much ready to go, not crated up or in parts. They were typically hung from the hangar deck overhead in fully assembled condition. So, it wouldn’t take long to lower a spare from the overhead and get it ready to go. These spares are probably best looked at as full members of the air group, with minimal time needed to get them up and operational, although they were typically administratively assigned to the ship herself, and not her air group.

These numbers became even greater once one realizes that the Yorktowns’ supposedly smaller early war air group size was due to her aircraft having (mostly) non-folding wings. Had Yorktown been able to return to Pearl Harbor before Coral Sea, she have doubtless reequipped with F4F-4s like her sisters did, and her fighter capacity would have significantly increased. Her low aircraft complement at Coral Sea was less a product of her design, and more a simple result of her being forward deployed for many months. By the time of Midway, their scout-bomber squadrons were carrying about 36 SBDs between them, and their fighter squadrons had approved strengths of about 25-27 F4F-4s. Add in roughly 15 TBDs and you’ve got a large active air group in the high seventies, and they were nearly all used. It should be noted that at Midway, deck load strikes comprising virtually all of these aircraft were launched; witness Enterprise and Hornet’s morning strikes, where nearly everything but combat air patrol and a few inner air patrol planes were launched. By the time of the Solomons campaign, Enterprise and Hornet were carrying around 36 F4F-4s as their regular fighter complement.

This becomes even more impressive when one realizes that Enterprise’s air group remained large even after operating bigger, heavier aircraft later in in the war. F6Fs were larger than F4Fs, TBFs were far larger than TBDs, etc. Despite this, her air group remained in the low seventies, typically, through her Air Group 10 and 20 days. Her air group only really decreased in size when she became a night carrier. Clearly, the Yorktowns had a serious aircraft storage capacity.

Their internal carrying capacity becomes even greater when one remembers that Hornet carried virtually her entire air group below decks during the Doolittle Raid. True, many of these aircraft would have been knocked down in order to make them fit, but that alone indicates just how much internal volume the Yorktowns featured, especially considering she carried two full squadrons of non-folding wing SBDs and the fact that their hangar deck was pierced by their center elevator, further reducing usable hangar volume.

Now, having said all of this, I can’t find an instance of an armoured carrier’s air group being that large in the early to midwar periods, even after the Fleet Air Arm began receiving folding wing Wildcats and Avengers. This isn’t meant to denigrate the armoured carriers; on the contrary, I’ve always considered them and Ark Royal to be trendsetters design-wise, and aesthetically amongst the prettiest warships of the period. It is simply meant to demonstrate that comparing the air groups of the Yorktowns and the armoured carriers is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison. The two were not equivalent when only numbers are compared, and not the physical characteristics of the aircraft carried, and the built-in storage capacity for more aircraft in the case of the Yorktowns. Each design emphasized certain traits, and the Yorktowns clearly emphasized significant hangar carrying capacity as well as deck park capacity. The armoured carriers did not, at least not to the same degree, but that is understandable given their design constraints and not something to be held against them.

Robert Morgan posted on "Debunking the Essays of Slade and Worth":

Good evening,

Just to clarify concerning the reserve aircraft, they could be suspended from the overheads fully complete and ready to go, or partially knocked down. Often, they were suspended without wings, but would require a couple of hours, tops, for an aviation metalsmith or crew chief to assemble. They appear to have been suspended in between the hangar deck support girders; its interesting that the aircraft fit so perfectly there, making one wonder if the idea of significant reserve storage capacity was the idea all along, and not simply a happy coincidence.

You can see a photo here at the site of some SBD wings suspended in such a fashion ( Here, from Navsource is a photo of fully assembled TBDs aboard Enterprise ( My understanding is that these fully assembled machines would he periodically taken down from the overheads and inspected, if not run up, to ensure readiness.

I suspect the reason for the variation in carrying capacity between the two classes has as much to do with hangar deck ceiling height at anything else. The lower ceiling height of the armoured carriers, which restricted their ability to operate the F4U until they received their clipped wings, probably affected their ability to store aircraft more significantly than believed. Most commentators I have read have cited the low ceiling height as a reason for restricting the types of aircraft carried, but that has never seemed quite logical to me. Grumman aircraft would have encountered no such problems due to the nature of their wingfolds, and once the F4U was suitably modified, it served with distinction aboard the armoured carriers. There just doesn't seem to have been any other space available for storage, as near as I can tell, without resorting to a larger, more permanent deck park. The Yorktowns didn't have this problem. I don't have their blueprints in front of me, but I suspect their hangar decks were also wider than those of the armoured carriers, given the different nature of their construction, which would have afforded slightly more storage space on the decks themselves.

Having said this, I don't doubt doubt that Indomitable could have carried a creditably large F4F complement. Victorious' experiences as "USS Robin," clearly showed that she could operate larger numbers of F4Fs. What's interesting is that many of her Avengers were put aboard Saratoga, perhaps to make fighter operations more efficient and seamless? I still haven't quite figured out the reason for this.


Robert Morgan

PS. Just to clarify the VF-3 photo with the TBDs in the background, it is often miscaptioned as being taken aboard Saratoga since VF-3 was her normal fighting squadron. However, the roller doors in the background make it clear that it was taken aboard a Yorktown-class carrier (or Wasp), as the Lexingtons did not have this feature. The National Archives lists it as taken aboard Enterprise, probably during a training or cross-decking period (