Carrier Air Wing 14, VFA-22 'Fighting Redcocks', FA-18E Super Hornet on the catapult, USS Ronald Reagan.
The commonly-used steam catapult relies on the availability of large quantities of high-pressure steam- found in the vast majority of 20th century capital ships. The steam charges a steam accumulator so that it may be released faster than it can be produced by the ship.
The steam catapult consists of two slotted cylinders. The cylinders—typically 18 inches in diameter—contain free pistons connected to a shuttle which protrudes through a slot in the flight deck. The nosewheel of the aircraft to be launched is attached to the shuttle by a launch bar.
On completion of the launch the piston is traveling at high speed and would cause damage if not stopped in a controlled fashion. This is done by a water brake, which is a horizontal dashpot into which sea water is pumped with a swirling action as fast as it can flow out of the open end. The combination of the slight compressibility of the aerated water, the restriction as the water is expelled from the dashpot and the force produced by the expelled water hitting the front of the piston assembly itself serves to absorb the energy of the piston without damage. At that point a return mechanism readies the piston and shuttle for the next launch.
Photo source: US Navy
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