The Navy’s Smallest Carrier


The Nimitz class supercarriers are pretty big, at 1,092 feet and 103,000 tons. The Essex class carriers were a good deal smaller, at 820 feet and roughly 27,000 tons when built. Escort carriers were even smaller. The Casablanca class were even smaller, at 512 feet and 7,800 tons.

But the smallest carrier in the Navy was probably the Baylander, at 131 feet and 160 tons.

In the mid-1980s, at the Reagan defense buildup grew the fleet, a major part of the growth was in helicopters for surface combatants such as destroyers, frigates and cruisers. 

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Take a look at that tiny flight deck on the USS Knox above. Learning to fly a helicopter is one thing. Learning to land on a ship is another. Fixed wing Naval Aviators’s training culminated with their landing aboard the Navy’s training carrier, the USS Lexington. The problem was, the Navy didn’t always have a frigate or destroyer handy for rotary winged aviators to practice landing on.

It occurred to the Navy that you didn’t need much of a ship to practice landing helicopters on. And so, they converted a harbor utility craft by adding a landing platform and having it cruise off Pensacola as needed to allow fledgling birdmen practice at landing aboard. Designated IX-514, she was often called the HLT, or Helicopter Landing Trainer.

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Put into service in 1986, the HLT served for more than 20 years qualifying Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard aviators, in addition to pilots from numerous civilian and foreign agencies.

Recently the Baylander (it cruised around Pensacola Bay and landed helicopters-what else would it be named?) was sold to The Trenk Family Foundation, and it is currently on display at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The ship’s history before its conversion to the HLT was pretty interesting as well.

As the Vietnam War heated up in 1967, the Naval Support Activity Da Nang needed more lighterage to unload the vast sums of materiel arriving in Vietnam. And because the road network in Vietnam was poor and dangerous, the Navy need some coastal freighter capability to move cargoes from Da Nang to smaller facilities along the coast. The Navy’s LCU class utility landing craft were a bit small for the job, and further, most of them were already dedicated to the amphibious shipping fleet. So the Navy went shopping for an off-the-shelf design, and fortuitously found just what it was looking for up in Alaska. Designed to service oil pipeline construction, the Skilak class from the Pacific Coast Engineering Company fit the bill to a “T.”  The Navy quickly bought a dozen as the YFU-71 class (YFU is code for Harbor Utility Craft).  From around 1968 to the end of the war, they operated in  support of operations in Vietnam.  An Army Heavy Boat Company operated 6 of them after 1970, while one was transferred to Cambodia in 1970.

YFU-78 was sunk with heavy casualties from a Viet Cong rocket attack while loaded with ammunition.

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At the end of the war, the remaining 10 ships evacuated to Guam, where most of them served until the mid-1980s before being sold off or transferred to other government agencies.

Here’s the Baylander in her days as YFU-79.

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At least one or two of the class are still in service.

Helicopter operations aboard IX-514 in 2008.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Navy’s Smallest Carrier

  1. How big was the training carrier that operated off Chicago in Lake Michigan during WW2? I’m thinking it was a bit smaller than the CVEs.

  2. I used to cross paths with the original Skilak in Prince William Sound for years. The ran refrigerated semi-truck trailers full of fish from Cordova to Whittier by rail to Anchorage. She’s still around somewhere under a different name.
    Interestingly, PACECO, that built the YFU’s built a tank barge that went aground in Shemya in the 1950’s. It is still there. It always gave me the willys seeing it half buried in the shingle, knowing the same fate awaited us if the weather turned and our luck ran out.