… is probably a lot smaller than you’d imagine, if you’re even willing to call it one.
At 125′ long, the Helicopter Landing Trainer Baylander (IX-514) is about the length of three city buses (at least in Toronto, where I live), or a quarter the length of an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate. Its displacement, of 220 tons, is roughly two-tenths of a percent of that of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. But it still provides a valuable service for the US Navy, training helicopter pilots to take off and land on a pitching deck.
Baylander started life as a Harbor Utility Craft (classification YFU-79), one of a batch of shallow-draft cargo craft known as “Skilaks” because they were based on a design used in commercial service off Alaska. The Skilaks spent most of the late 1960s hauling military cargo up and down the coast of Vietnam – a 1969 article in All Hands estimated that 80 per cent of supplies delivered to outposts in the US I Corps region was put ashore from Skilaks.
YFU-79 went into reserve in 1975, and came out again a decade later when the Navy decided to convert it into a helicopter landing trainer. Converted to carry a 58 x 28 foot flight deck similar to that on a navy cruiser or destroyer, the Baylander was a cheap way to offer training. The ship it replaced, the USS Lexington, was a 27,000+ ton Second World War fleet carrier. As of 2012, the Baylander supports 560 landings a month, with an all-time total of well over 120,000. That’s pretty much all that it can do, as well, since the Baylander doesn’t have any helicopter servicing or storage capacity.
Aside from the Lexington, which served as a training carrier (CVT-16) from 1969 to 1991, the Baylander is one of a very small number of US aviation training ships. Its closest kin are probably its fellow IX hulls Sable (IX-81) and Wolverine (IX-84), two Great Lakes paddle-wheelers that were converted into training aircraft carriers during the Second World War. The other comparison would be to helicopter training ships like the British Engadine or the French Jeanne d’Arc, though the comparison’s not perfect: they were both fully-functional helicopter carriers that also had secondary wartime roles. Whatever one thinks, it’s fair to say that among naval ships the Baylander is unique.
h/t Uncommon Warriors: 200 Years of the Most Unusual American Naval Vessels by Ken. W. Sayers