This Is How You Build An Aircraft Carrier (Updated: Behind-the-Scenes Video)

By Chris Mills on at

The times when the British Navy ruled the seven seas, killing pirates and upstart colonials is, sadly, gone; that doesn't mean, though, that we can't build impressive little ships to sail around in. The newest and greatest are the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, 65,000 tonne supercarriers currently under construction, right here in the not-so-sunny United Kingdom.

When it came to deciding where the carriers would be built, there was a problem: there's no dock in the UK big enough to handle building an entire carrier in situ. Rather than embiggen an existing dock at great cost, the MoD decided to spread the carrier-building love. The ships were designed to be built modularly, with different blocks being build in different yards around the country, and then joined together to create the final ship. It's kind of like a giant Lego set, only bigger: some of the blocks are 11,000 tonnes by themselves. To put that in perspective, that means that the individual blocks are, by themselves, bigger than the next-biggest ship in the Royal Navy.

Once each of the nine blocks is constructed, it's floated by barge from the individual shipyard (there are six of them around the UK) to the Rosyth yard. As you might imagine, moving 11,000-tonne lumps of metal around isn't easy, especially when they weren't designed to take to the sea as individual pieces. For the move, they're attached to giant barges and taken by tugboat around the UK, a process that typically takes around a month and depends heavily on the weather.

Once a block arrives at the dock in Rosyth, it's manoeuvred into the dry dock by a small team of tugboats. There, it's attached to the main body of the ship -- no easy project, as it involves moving 30,000 tonne blocks of metal around. To do this, the engineers have mounted the whole thing on a low-friction PTFE base, and use hydraulic rams to shunt the thing around. The entire build process is neatly shown in the video above, which demonstrates exactly how the carrier is being built, block by block. It's like a giant Lego set, only awesomer.

Of course, this is a building project, and as all budding architects know, all building projects require big cranes to lift things. This is no exception -- in fact, it's got the biggest crane in the UK, aptly named Goliath. It's a monster of a machine, capable of lifting a nice round 1000 tonnes a height of 68 metres. The lifting power comes from not one, but three hooks, each independently controlled so that pieces with awkward centres of gravity can still be lifted safely. It's used to move the sub-blocks -- handy little extras like the bow of the ship, or the aircraft elevators and things like that.

As it currently stands, the first of the two aircraft carriers (the HMS Queen Elizabeth) is about 50 per cent built. All nine of the blocks have been built; once it's all assembled, attention turns to moving the two towers into place, a process that starts today with the forward island. Once the islands are in place, there's a bit more work to make it seaworthy, and then the ship will be floated out in 2014 to begin the process of outfitting it with all the bits and bobs to make it a fully-functioning aircraft carrier.

That's already started, with the biggest and most important thing -- the engines -- currently in the process of being installed. Unlike the US's nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarriers, our big floating airports are driven along by gas-turbine engines. Specifically, they're Rolls-Royce MT30 gas turbines, capable of producing 40MW each -- that's as much power as 50 high-speed intercity trains. At pedal-to-the-metal power, that's enough power to drive the carriers at 25 knots, or close to 30mph, with a range of 10,000 nautical miles. There's also 4 diesel generator sets, which provide the electricity for the ship -- enough of it to power 300,000 kettles, or 5,500 family homes.

Obviously, being an aircraft carrier and all, the most important things to go on it are the aircraft. These will be F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, stealth planes that have been developed in conjunction with our American cousins. The specific version we're getting is the 'B' model, notable because it's STOVL capable -- Short Take Off, Vertical Landing. This means it's like the Harrier it's replacing, able to take off and land from a carrier without the need for catapults and trapezes. As a result, though, the STOVL version is able to carry less weapons payload and fuel, giving it a shorter range, less lethality and, because of weapons hanging on external pylons, it's also less sneaky.

All that electrical power is necessary because of the plethora of weapons systems the aircraft carriers will be packing. In addition to all the systems needed to run the aircraft (we'll come to those in a second), there are other weapons and systems on the ship. For last-ditch Hail-Mary shit's-about-to-hit-the-fan missile defence, there are Phalanx Close In Weapons Systems; there will be 4-6 of these mounted on the ship, each consisting of a radar-guided 20mm gun, firing 75 bullets the size of your fist per second at incoming missiles and planes, the aim being to hit incoming missiles and blow them up before they hit the ship.

There are also 30mm cannons, the same as found on other Royal Navy ships, for medium-range defence against small boats. Apart from these, the carriers won't pack much offensive weaponry; rather, they'll depend on their escorts and the planes they carry to deal with anything nasty.

Speaking of the aircraft: each carrier will carry 'up to 40' aircraft, including helicopters; in reality, an air wing will likely be 6-12 fighters and a few helicopters. The fighters can be stored on deck for quick launch, or there's a big hangar below deck where additional fighters can be stored, and they can be kept protected from the elements for maintenance.

In a battle, those fighters would go through ammunition quickly; in order to keep them topped up, the carriers have a completely automated ammunition storage facility -- like in some kind of super-Amazon warehouse, all the moving is done electronically, with 56 'moles' able to move pallets back and forth, up and down around the magazine, into the hangar and to the aircraft elevator, ensuring a constant flow of missiles to the right places. All this automation saves on people -- it's estimated that the moles mean that a crew of 12 could operate the armoury, where previously it would've needed 150. This automation extends right throughout the ship -- the total crew needed to work the ship (without the Top Gun-pilot component) is only 679. Compare that to the US Nimitz-class carriers, which need 3200 people to work, and you can see that the Royal Navy is really taking automation to heart.

The Queen Elizabeth won't be in service until 2020, sadly; the second carrier, the Prince of Wales, may not ever enter service at all, due to financial wrangling at the Ministry of Defence. Even though they might not be the most powerful ships ever to set sail, they're certainly going to be some of the smartest; and it has to be said, the ingenious system of building them is quintessentially British. No other nation would be quite so brilliantly (stupidly?) eccentric as to build a ship in nine different parts. Truth be told, they'd probably just build one big-enough ship. Screw 'em. [Aircraft Carrier Alliance - Wikipedia - Royal Navy - The Engineer]

All images Aircraft Carrier Alliance

Update: The forward island (yes, our aircraft carrier has two islands, probably just to stick it to the Yanks with their one-tower carriers) has left the build yard in Portsmouth and made its way up to the mothership in Rorsyth. BAE Systems were nice enough to give us the first look at the awesome time-lapse footage of it doing so, so you can hit up the embedded video below (or go on over to our YouTube channel). Pro tip: although the video is a timelapse and doesn't have audio, a quick experiment reveals that it's made far more dramatic with the addition of The Ride of the Valkyries. Enjoy.

This article was originally published on February 4th 2013, but has been updated with the exclusive video footage