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HMS Ark Royal (R09)
17 HMS Ark Royal North Atlantic July 76.jpg
HMS Ark Royal with Phantom FG.1 and Buccaneer S.2 aircraft on deck, 1976
Career (United Kingdom)
Name: Ark Royal (R09)
Ordered: Mid-1942
Builder: Cammell Laird
Laid down: 3 May 1943
Launched: 3 May 1950
Commissioned: 25 February 1955
Decommissioned: 14 February 1979
Struck: February 1979
Homeport: HMNB Devonport
Motto: Desire Does Not Rest
Nickname: The Mighty Ark
Fate: Scrapped 1980
General characteristics
Class & type: Audacious class aircraft carrier
Displacement: 36,800 tons (as built)
43,060 tons 53,950 tons full load(1978)
Length: 804 ft (245 m)
Beam: 112 ft (34 m) (as built)
171 ft (52 m)(1978)
Draught: 10 m (33 ft) standard
9.5 m (31 ft) deep
Propulsion: 8 Admiralty 3-drum boilers in 4 boiler rooms
4 sets of Parsons geared turbines, 4 shafts
Power: 152,000 shp (113,000 kW)
Speed: 31.5 knots (58.3 km/h)
Range: 7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km) at 14 knots (26 km/h)
5,000 nautical miles (9,300 km) at 24 knots (44 km/h)
Complement: 2,250 (2,640 inc. air staff)

As built:
16 × 4.5 inch (113 mm) guns (8 × 2)
52 × 40 mm Bofors (6 × 6, 2 × 2, 12 × 1)

1969 refit: none
Aircraft carried: As built: 50
38 after 1967–1970 refit

HMS Ark Royal (R09) was an Audacious-class aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy and, when she was decommissioned in 1978, was the Royal Navy's last remaining conventional catapult and arrested-landing aircraft carrier. She was the world's first aircraft carrier to be commissioned with an angled flight deck, preceding the first American carrier commissioned with this feature, USS Forrestal, by eight months.[1]

Construction and modifications

Ark in the late 1950s, before the port deck-edge lift was removed

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.[2] These innovations allowed aircraft to land and take off from the carrier at the same time. Her flight deck as built was 800 by 112 feet (244 by 34 m).

HMS Ark Royal in 1957.

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 1967 to February 1970, she underwent her final major refit which was an austere update, confined mainly to new features and electronic equipment needed to operate the RAN's version of the Phantom. The refit cost around 30m pounds far less than the partial modernisation of the 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.Extensive rewiring and new electrical systems were put in. A modified island (with a different arrangement from Eagle) and a partially new electronic suite were also added, though some of her original radars, such as 983 heightfinders were retained and she did not receive the 3-D air-search radar set that her sister had fitted, instead two double array 966 versions of the standard RN 965 long range system were fitted and one of the new 986 sets . 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. Significantly, there was little more than an overhaul of her steam turbines and boilers; mechanically she was very dated, being scheduled for at the most only five years more service by government policy to scrap the carriers by 1975. Intensive and increasingly unsuccessful maintenance and a new programme of continuous servicing and repair with RN maintenance ships always in her task groups, kept her going until late 1978, with increasing mechanical and electrical failures-leading to decommission in Nov 1978.

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.

Operational history

Ark Royal (background) operating with USS Independence (foreground) in the North Atlantic, 1971.

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 as the British Aerospace Sea Harrier, was later accepted as the primary strike capability of the last Ark Royal from 1980 onwards.

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.[3] 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".

On 9 November 1970 while in the Mediterranean to participate in a NATO exercise she collided with the Bravyy,[4] a Soviet Kotlin class destroyer which was shadowing Ark Royal (a common practice during the Cold War).[5] 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.

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.

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 an 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.

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.[6]

In 1977, under the flag of Admiral Sir Henry Leach KCB Commander-in-Chief Fleet, "Ark Royal" led the Royal Navy's tribute to and celebrations of HM The Queen's Silver Jubilee at Spithead.[7]

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.

Ark Royal alongside USS Nimitz in 1978

She entered HMNB Devonport on 4 December 1978 and decommissioned on 14 February 1979. Like her sister HMS Eagle she had a relatively short (24-year) life, and when the White Ensign lowered for the last time the Royal Navy no longer had fixed wing aircraft at sea. On 29 March 1980, the MOD announced that she would be sold for scrap and so ended plans to preserve her. She left Devonport on 22 September 1980 under tow to be scrapped at Cairnryan near Stranraer in Scotland, arriving on the 28th. Breaking up took until 1983. Various parts of the ship remain as souvenirs or memorials; for instance, an anchor outside the Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton.

Final air wing 1970–1978[8]


While Ark Royal's career spanned 29 years from the time of her launching (and her name was a household word), she spent more time in refits and modernisation (12 years) than she did in commissioned service (11 years), and required a lot of work from her engineers to keep her serviceable between yard work. The Eagle spent far more time at sea. The scrapping of Ark Royal in 1980, two years after her sister Eagle, marked the end of conventional fixed-wing aircraft operation aboard Royal Navy carriers. She had borne so many new inventions, yet her replacement was not equipped with any of these. There was some discussion about preserving her as a museum ship, and some private funds were raised; the Ministry of Defence would not sanction these efforts. The Fleet Air Arm Museum has subsequently mimicked the ship's island and flight deck in its central hall as an Aircraft Carrier Experience exhibition.

The Centaur-class aircraft carrier HMS Hermes remained in service after her, but had been converted to a helicopter commando carrier in 1971 and then as a V/STOL carrier. The one much smaller Invincible-class carrier currently in service could carry only vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft and helicopters. The two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers due to enter service in 2016 and 2018 were originally designed to be operate V/STOL aircraft. Despite expert advice, and in an attempt to reduce costs, the UK government requested that the new carriers be modified to operate conventional CATOBAR (catapult assisted takeoff and barrier/arrested recovery) aircraft. The design work for the huge structural changes and upgrade of the ships energy generation required to fit electromagnetic catapults to the ship proved infeasible. In May 2012 it was announced by the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond that the Government would not press ahead with 'cats and traps' and the traditional carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter (F35C), but instead revert to the original jump jet variant (F35B) because of "unacceptable" spiralling costs and delays.[9]

Aircraft and squadrons

Overhead view of Ark Royal in 1970

Commanding Officers

  • 1954–1956: Captain Dennis Cambell RN
  • 1956–1958: Captain Frank Hopkins RN
  • 1959–1961: Captain Peter Hill-Norton RN
  • 1961–1963: Captain Donald Gibson RN
  • 1963–1964: Captain Michael Pollock RN
  • 1964–1965: Captain Anthony Griffin RN
  • 1965–1966: Captain Michael Fell RN
  • 1969–1971: Captain Raymond Lygo RN
  • 1971–1972: Captain John Roberts RN
  • 1972–1973: Captain Desmond Cassidi RN
  • 1973–1975: Captain John Gerard-Pearse RN
  • 1975–1976: Captain Wilfred Graham RN
  • 1976–1978: Captain Edward Anson RN

See also


  1. But one month after the recommissioning of USS Shangri-La (CV-38) after conversion to an angled deck.
  2. David Hobbs, 2007, HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On, p. 6
  3. Phoenix Squadron p42-43
  5. Phoenix Squadron p33-34
  6. White, Rowland Phoenix Squadron: HMS Ark Royal, Britain's last Topguns and the untold story of their most dramatic mission Corgi 2010 978-0552152907
  8.[dead link]
  9. Jump jets return as Government scraps 'cats and traps' plan for future carriers 10 May 2012
  • Hobbs, Commander David (October 2007). "HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On". pp. 5–9. ISSN 1322-6231. 
  • Roger Chesneau, Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present; An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1984)
  • Robert Gardiner, ed., Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1947–1982 (Conway Maritime Press, London, 1983)
  • Raymond Blackman, Ships of the Royal Navy (Macdonald and Jane's, London, 1973)
  • Paul Beaver, Ark Royal, A pictorial history of the Royal Navy's last conventional aircraft carrier (Patrick Stephens, Cambridge, 1979)

External links

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