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How powerful are catapults of aircraft carriers? Well, very powerful

Posted June 3, 2019

Some aircraft carriers use catapults to help accelerating airplanes for them to take off easier. Current carriers are using high pressure steam catapults, which work a bit like giant springs, suddenly released to throw airplanes into flight. More modern approach are electromagnetic catapults that are currently being developed. Either way, did you know that a catapult alone is enough to propel airplane into flight?

Catapults by themselves are powerful enough to allow airplanes reach flight, but engines are powered up to maintain it. Image credit: Official Navy Page via Wikimedia

Airplanes are flying because of the lift, generated by the wings and, sometimes, body. When the airflow around the wings is sufficient, the difference in pressure below and above wings becomes lift and the aircraft takes off. That airflow is generated by airplane moving forward on a runway or, in this case, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier. Some aircraft carriers don’t have catapults. Instead, airplanes accelerate by themselves and use skii jumps to gain some altitude. However, more advanced aircraft carriers are using catapult systems, which are so powerful they can generate enough speed for the aircraft to take off.

Of course, airplanes ready to take off have their engines running and powered up. Even though catapult by itself is enough to generate enough speed for take off, to continue flying airplanes need their engines. If they malfunctioned or were not running for some reason, a jet fighter would be flying like a paper plane – just as far as catapult’s energy would carry it. And catapults are very powerful.

Steam catapults are a bit like giant springs – they can launch jet fighters as if they were paper planes. Image credit: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia

A catapult used in USS Nimitz, called C-13-1, is 99 metres long and has a stroke of 94 metres. In this relatively short distance it is able to generate a substantial amount of speed – its capacity is 36 tonnes at 140 knots. Some other aircraft carriers are using catapult systems of lesser capacity. For example, French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has a C-13-3 catapult, which is 80 metres long and has a stroke of 75 metres. This device has a capacity of 27 tonnes at 140 knots. All types of aircraft catapults are regularly tested using so-called sleds – wheeled weighed devices that are launched into the sea to test catapult’s speed and efficiency. These sleds are later recovered and reused in other tests.

So yup, catapults on aircraft carriers are very powerful – powerful enough to launch jet fighters as paper planes. Interestingly, new generation electromagnetic catapults will not be much more powerful. Instead, they will be more controlled, faster and less damaging to the airframes.

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