The history of French naval aviation started in March 1912 when a Canard Voisin became the first naval seaplane to fly operationally from a from the seaplane carrier, La Foudre (the Lightening ). By summer of 1913 the French Navy had trained 11 pilots for its seaplane force. At this time Foudre was deployed in large-scale naval war games. The seaplanes performed very well in the scouting and observation role, with one of Foudre’s Nieuport floatplanes discovering a “surprise” assault by “enemy” warships.
In late 1913, a ten meter long launching platform was installed on the Foudre. The plan was to launch a Caudron G.3 scout-seaplane. The G.3 launched successfully on May 8 1914. Before this, planes were lifted and lowered into the water for lift off and landing by a crane. However, World War I soon put a stop to further experiments of French Naval aviation. Four civilian ships were converted to seaplane tenders during the war and the Foudre also continued to serve.
Besides this, the French made an invaluable contribution to the worldwide development on naval aviation. In 1909 Clement Ader’s book “L’Aviation Militaire” (Military Aviation), was published, in which the French inventor described the modern aircraft carrier, including a flat flight deck, with an island superstructure, elevators and a below-deck hangars.
After World War I and during the time of the Washington Naval Treaty when other powers, such as Japan and the United States sought to overcome the limits of the treaty with aircraft carriers, French did not, instead focusing on building a large number of smaller ships. In fact, during the interwar years the French built and deployed only one true Aircraft carrier, “Bearn”. The “Bearn” was based on a battleship hull with a true carrier deck. She was too slow to be used as a fleet carrier and was used to transport aircraft. The French also built and deployed a seaplane tender: The “Commandant Teste”. The “Commandant Teste” was sunk during the scuttling of the French Fleet to prevent its capture by the Germans.
After the war, French Naval aviation depended on ships bought from other countries. The Escort carrier “Dixmude” was formally the British carrier “Biter” was transferred in 1945. The “Arromanches”, formally the Royal Navy “Colossus” was transferred from Britain in 1946. In the 1950’s France received the “USS Langley “ which was renamed the “Lafayette” and the “USS Belleau Wood” which was renamed the “Bois Belleau”. During this time the French Navy flew World War Two era aircraft, such as the Dauntless Dive Bombers or the marine variant of the Spitfire.
In the late fifties and early sixties the French Navy built and deployed two fleet carries: “Clemenceau” and “Foch”. Both ships deployed up to 40 jet aircraft including 15 Super Étendards. In 1961 the French deployed the Helicopter carrier “Jeanne D’Arc”.
In 1994, the French launched “The Charles de Gaulle” a nuclear-powered Fleet carrier. The “De Gaulle” is the only French Aircraft carrier currently in service.