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HMS Ark Royal (R09)

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The HMS Ark Royal (R09) with F-4 Phantoms and Blackburn Buccaneers on the flight deck in July 1976.

The HMS Ark Royal (R09) is an Audacious-class aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy which served from 1950 to 1979 and later 1989 to 2007.

Construction and Modifications[edit]

Ark Royal was the sister ship to HMS Eagle, which was initially named HMS Audacious, hence the name of the class. Four Audacious-class ships were laid down, but two (HMS Africa and the original HMS Eagle) were cancelled at the end of the war, and construction of the other two suspended for several years. Both surviving ships were extensively upgraded throughout their lifetimes.

The ship was originally designated Irresistible, but was renamed Ark Royal prior to launch. The immediately previous Ark Royal, also an aircraft carrier, was torpedoed off Gibraltar on 14 November 1941 with the loss of one member of the ship's company.

She was launched in 1950, and her completion took five more years. In this time, she underwent redesign and, when completed, she was markedly different from her sister ship. Shortly before her launch from the Cammell Laird shipyard, an image of the ship painted with her white undercoat was captured by the pictorialist photographer Edward Chambré Hardman. This has been exhibited many times under the name 'Where Great Ships Are Built' and later 'Birth Of The Ark Royal. When commissioned, she had a 5.5° partially angled flight deck, two steam catapults capable of launching aircraft weighing up to 30,000 pounds (14,000 kg), a deck-edge lift on the port side (the first British ship to be fitted with such a device), modified armament, and the new mirror landing system. Ark Royal was the first ship to be constructed with an angled flight deck and steam catapults, as opposed to having them added after launching. These innovations allowed aircraft to land and take off from the carrier at the same time. Her flight deck as built was 804 feet by 112 feet (245.06 by 34.14 m).

About a year after commissioning, her forward port 4.5 inch (113 mm) guns were removed to improve aircraft operations over the angled deck. Four years later, the port deck-edge lift and the forward starboard 4.5 inch (113 mm) guns were also removed. The remaining 4.5 inch guns were removed in the 1964 refit. From March 1964 to February 1967, she underwent her final major refit which followed the refitted design of her sister Eagle but also added several improvements, which allowed her to comfortably operate the larger Phantom and Buccaneer Mk.2 aircraft. Like Eagle her modifications included a full 8.5° angled flight deck, new catapults (with bridle catchers), heavy grade jet-blast deflectors, and heavy-weight arrestor cables. A modified island (with a different arrangement from Eagle) and a partially new electronic suite were also added, though some of her original radars were retained and she did not receive the 3-D air-search radar set that her sister had fitted. Her flight deck size was increased port aft however, giving her extra deck-park space for her airgroup that Eagle did not have. She was also fitted for four Sea Cat missile launchers, but they were never installed, so she emerged from this refit with no defensive armament.

Initially on entry into service, the ship had a complement of up to 50 aircraft comprising Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms, Gannets, Skyraiders and various helicopters. As later aircraft types grew in size and complexity, her air group fell to below 40 when she left service in 1978.

In 1984, the Ark Royal was sent to the Marconi Marine drydock for its rebuild so that it could be brought back into service. The changes to the design included increasing the size of the ship to 835.8 feet (254.75 meters) in length, 171 feet (56.13 meters) wide, and a new 12° angled flight deck, three new steam catapults, and a new superstructure (the same design as the HMCS Eagle's (which bore a striking resemblence to the superstructure of the cancelled CVA-01). The Ark Royal would also be equipped with three 20mm Phalanx CIWS, a Mark 25 NATO Sea Sparrow missile launcher, and the sensor suite from the Invincible-class light carriers. In the late 1990s, the Ark Royal received another refit to test several of the systems that would be used on the Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers.

Operational History[edit]

Commissioning and Early Years[edit]

Ark Royal participated in many exercises as part of the British fleet and NATO squadrons, but saw no combat duty. She was not involved in the Suez Crisis of 1956, about a year after her commissioning, because she was still being worked up to full readiness for operations. In 1973, she carried out trials for a new type of Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft, the Hawker P.1127, which later developed into the Hawker Siddeley Harrier. The same aircraft, now having been redesigned and developed by Lockheed-Martin in the US as the AV-8A, was later accepted as the primary strike capability of the last Ark Royal from 1980 onwards.

The ship featured in the 1960s British television series Not Only... But Also starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. In one episode, they used the ship's catapult to shoot a piano into the sea. When commissions ended, items were fired off the catapult, including pianos and once a toilet complete with paying-off pennant.

She was part of the Beira Patrol enforcing the naval blockade of Rhodesia in 1965. The 1966 Defence White Paper planned the end of British carriers in the early 1970s but she went into dock for her refit to head off dockyard redundancies and the likely political issues. A new government re-examined the case for carriers finding that shore-based aircraft could not provide adequate cover for British concerns "East of Suez".

The 1970s[edit]

By 1970, Ark Royal had a complement of 39 aircraft. This typically comprised 12 Phantom FG MK.1s, of 892 Naval Air Squadron, 14 Buccaneer S MK.2s of 809 Squadron, 4 Gannet AEW Mk.3s of B Flight 849 Squadron, 6 Sea King HAS Mk.1s of 824 Squadron, 2 Wessex HAR Mk.1s of the Ship's Flight and 1 Gannet COD Mk.4. later replaced by a AEW3. The Buccaneers doubled as tanker aircraft, using buddy refuelling pods, and as long-range reconnaissance aircraft with bomb bay-mounted camera packs. In July 1976, she represented Britain at the United States Bicentennial Celebration in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

On November 9, 1970 while in the Mediterranean to participate in a NATO exercise she collided with a Soviet Kotlin-class destroyer which was shadowing Ark Royal (a common practice during the Cold War). Ark Royal was slightly damaged, while the Soviet destroyer sustained minor damage and two missing crew. Ark Royal’s commanding officer, Captain Ray Lygo, was cleared of blame at the subsequent court-martial.

In 1972, the Buccaneers aboard HMS Ark Royal took part in a long range strike mission over British Honduras shortly before its independence to deter a possible Guatemalan invasion.

In 1976, the Ark Royal would be part of the UN mission in Cyprus in when the Turkish Armed Forces invaded. F-4K Phantoms and Blackburn Buccaneers would bomb Turkish positions on Cyprus. F-4K Phantoms were part of the force involved in bombing Turkish army positions on Cyprus.

In the late 1970s, the ship made a return to television. A major BBC documentary series, Sailor was made, showing life on board the ship during a February to July 1976 Western Atlantic deployment. Her commanding officer at this time was Captain Wilfred Graham, a later Flag Officer Portsmouth and the ship's Commander (executive officer) was Commander David Cowling. The theme tune for the programme was "Sailing" by Rod Stewart – a song that came to be associated with the ship and her successor. She visited Fort Lauderdale, Florida from 30 May until 14 June 1978. The Ark Royal would be deccommissioned on February 14, 1979 and placed in the reserve fleet for six years in case it would be needed in active service again.

Rebuild and Reactivation[edit]

In June 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the reactivation of the fleet carrier Ark Royal which had been decommissioned in 1979. In late 1984, the Royal Navy asks for Canadian Forces technicians to assist them in rebuilding Ark Royal back to battle-readiness. The Canadian Forces of course agree to aid Britain in rebuilding the Ark Royal. HMS Ark Royal enters dry dock at Marconi Marine's Shipbuilding in Glasgow on September 14, 1984, whilst work is still done on her design.

The Ark Royal would launch on May 13, 1988 on begin sea trials on the 16th. The Ark Royal's air wing would consist of eight-teen Hornet RN.1 multirole fighters, twenty Panavia Tornado RN.1 strike aircraft, two E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, four S-3B Viking ASW aircraft, four Sea King ASW Helicopters, and for Westland Lynx helicopters. Ark Royal commissioned on March 29, 1989 after and extensive four year refit and year long series of sea trials. It made its debut during that years NATO exercises.

1990s[edit]

The Ark Royal would be part of the naval forces stationed in the Red Sea during the Gulf War. After the war, the Ark Royal would return to Britain for a refit. In 1992, the Ark Royal would be involved in UNMISA operations along with the HMAS Australia (R22), HMCS Eagle (CV-23), MN Clemenceau (R98), USS Independence (CV-62), USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), USS Nimitz (CVN-68), USS George Washington (CVN-73), and USS Missouri (BB-63).

On September 28, 1997, the Ark Royal arrives to assist HMCS Warrior until it is relieved by the USS Nimitz on October 11. The Ark Royal heads back to Britain on May 25, 1998 where it is given an upgrade to test various systems of the upcoming CVF carriers.

2000s and Retirement[edit]

In 2001, the Ark Royal was one of several carriers to take part in the operations in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on September 11.

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