Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier en route to Texas for recycling

USS Kitty Hawk (Quillc/WikiCommons)

The former USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) aircraft carrier has finally begun the 17,000-mile journey from Bremerton, Wash., to the Port of Brownsville for recycling by International Shipbreaking Ltd./EMR Brownsville.

The Navy contracted with the Brownsville shipbreaker late last year to salvage the Kitty Hawk and the JFK. Per the contract, ISL is being paid a penny for each aircraft carrier to be towed here for scrapping. ISL Vice President Robert Berry estimated that the Kitty Hawk will arrive sometime between mid- and late May.

A lot of it depends on what kind of weather the historic ship and its tug encounter from Washington down the Pacific coast, through the Strait of Magellan near the tip of South America, up the Atlantic coast, through the Caribbean Sea and into the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

“When you’ve got a 17,000-mile tow, weather can really be a difference,” Berry said.

It’s a good time of year to make the voyage since it’s summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, he noted. The Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1961 at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, decommissioned in 2009 and has been in storage at Naval Base Kitsap among Bremerton’s “ghost fleet.” It was the last conventional, or oil-fired, carrier to be removed from service, while the JFK — commissioned in 1968 and decommissioned in 2007 — was the last conventional carrier built, Berry said. Subsequent carriers have been nuclear powered.

ISL is still in the process of getting the necessary security clearance to handle the JFK and it’s not known when it will make the trip to Brownsville, he said. But the shipbreaker is planning a ceremony to honor the Kitty Hawk and the thousands of veterans who served aboard it, Berry said.

“We are going to have an event like we did for the Independence, probably with some plank owners talking and that sort of thing,” he said. “As we get closer to it we’ll put out some information on what we’re going to do. We still have to work the details out with the county and the port.”

A “plank owner” is someone who was part of a ship’s original crew at the time of its commissioning. ISL was awarded the contract to dismantle the decommissioned USS Constellation and USS Ranger carriers in addition to the USS Independence. Other shipbreakers at the port in years past have salvaged the former USS Saratoga and USS Ranger carriers.

ISL hopes to hold the Kitty Hawk event in Isla Blanca Park but hasn’t yet secured permission from the county, Berry said.

At any rate, every time one of the big carriers comes through the jetties into the Brownsville Ship Channel, scores of veterans and others flock to Cameron County’s Isla Blanca Park to witness the spectacle.

“There were over 5,000 staying on (South Padre) Island for the Independence coming in,” Berry said. “The hotels love us.”

ISL invariably receives a flood of inquiries from veterans interested in acquiring souvenirs from the vessels, and in many cases hoping for a chance to walk the decks just one more time.

While ISL will be making Kitty Hawk challenge coins and small pieces of the ship available on its eBay store, the contract with the Navy prohibits anyone but authorized personnel from boarding the vessels, Berry said, adding that he understands just how important they are to the veterans who crewed them.

“I’m getting between 50 and 300 calls a day from people who served on it,” he said. “We try out best to talk to each and every one, but it’s hard. There’s just not enough time in the day.”


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