HMS ILLUSTRIOUS – A FINE LINE BETWEEN AFFORDAIBILITY, REASON AND FUTURE PRESERVATION
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
25 Jul 14. Amid cheers and no doubt, a great many tears earlier this week, the sight and sound of the last of Britain’s three Invincible class carrier HMS Illustrious as she ‘steamed’ into her home port of Portsmouth for the very last time must have been an occasion that those fortunate to witness it will surely never forget. For the many thousands of sailors and airman who, over the period of thirty-two years that HMS Illustrious was to be a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy, had spent time aboard her retirement will not only be a time for reflection but also one seen as marking the end of an era.
I have never been quite sure why but there is such an allure and love by the British public for aircraft carriers but my hope is that it is because of the inextricable link that aircraft carriers provide between air and maritime power. That link will of course continue when at some future point we re-engage certain elements of carrier strike capability within the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales that are currently under construction.
Three years ago it was the turn of HMS Ark Royal V to receive the cheers and thanks of a grateful nation as she steamed into the very same port. Before her it was HMS Invincible in 2005 and before her, the last true conventional aircraft carrier HMS Hermes which, having been laid down in 1944, launched in 1953, commissioned in 1959 and decommissioned by the Royal Navy in 1984 was then sold to India where she would became INS Viraat – a fine ship and one that amazingly is still in active service today.
I reserve my main comments in respect of the ‘future’ for HMS Illustrious to the last five paragraphs of this particular ‘Commentary’ piece. Leaving aside the current MOD proposal, announced in 2012 that, if possible, HMS Illustrious should be preserved in some form or another I suspect that if there ever was a well-reasoned case to preserve a decommissioned Royal Navy aircraft carrier it should have been the 24,800 ton fourth HMS Ark Royal to bear that name. Launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1950, the fourth Ark Royal was finally commissioned by the Royal Navy on the 22nd February 1955. She would become the flagship of the Royal Navy until decommissioning at her home port of Plymouth on the 14th February 1979.
Speaking personally, I know of no other Royal Navy ship in the post second world-war era that the British public endeared itself to more than the fourth HMS Ark Royal and in saying this I do not neglect the huge love and respect that the British public also had for HMS Hermes during her role in the Falklands war. I count myself having been fortunate to have once walked the boards of what was indeed a very fine ship and that through her long period in service carried a wide range of aircraft and helicopters including Gannet, Sea Vixen, Scimitar, Phantom, Buccaneer, Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King. Ark Royal was also used for trials of the VSTOL Hawker P1127 VSTOL and Harrier GR1 aircraft.
It may also be worth recalling here that such was the public affection for HMS Ark Royal lV realised that the well-loved Evening Standard cartoonist ‘Jak’ even drew a half page drawing on the day of her decommissioning. Sadly, with defence of the realm having been allowed to fall quite so low on the public agenda today I rather doubt that we will see the like of such public interest being shown again. More’s the pity!
There was in fact a very reasonable and well thought out plan to save and preserve HMS Ark Royal 1V and the Ark Royal Preservation Trust was founded for that very purpose. Headed by Vice Admiral Sir Richard Smeeton who had flown his flag as ‘Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers’ during the third and fourth of Ark Royal’s commissions the plan was that the fine ship should be mo