HMS Illustrious sails into Liverpool

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The Royal Navy warship HMS Illustrious sailed into Liverpool on Thursday 14th February.  The Navy’s last remaining helicopter carrier arrived and berthed at the Liverpool cruise liner terminal for a five-day visit.

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I wasn’t able to get to see the carrier’s entry to the River Mersey on Thursday but I’m told that the ship made the traditional ceremonial entry into the city with around 200 members of the 600-strong crew standing in their dress uniform on the flight deck.  “Lusty” as she is affectionately known to her crew had travelled from her home port of Portsmouth for the visit to Liverpool with both a Lynx and a Sea King helicopter on board for the public to take a closer look at.

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On Saturday and Sunday the public were allowed to go on guided tours of the ship and I went along on Saturday morning and queued with hundreds of others in an orderly line on Princes Parade.

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The Town Crier of the City Of Liverpool and the Royal Marines band were around for the day to brighten the wait in the queue.

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The vessel is a light aircraft carrier weighing around 22,000 tonnes and is now a dedicated helicopter and commando carrier.  It is 686 ft (209 m) long and has a beam (width at the waterline) of 118 ft (36 m) and a draught (the depth of a loaded vessel in the water from the level of the waterline to the lowest point of the hull) of 25 ft (7.6 m).  It has an operating range of 5,000 nautical miles and has a crew of 685 Royal Navy crew and 366 Fleet Air Arm.

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HMS Illustrious is the second of three Invincible-class light aircraft carriers built for the Royal Navy in the late 1970s and early 1980s being a sister ship to the famous but now decommissioned Ark Royal and Invincible, which both visited Liverpool several times for major Royal Navy and city events.  She is the fifth warship and second aircraft carrier to bear the name ‘Illustrious’.

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The carrier was built at Swan Hunter’s shipyard on the on the River Tyne in 1976 and launched in 1978.  However the commissioning of Illustrious was not completed until after the Falklands Conflict in 1982.  It did see active service being deployed to Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s and to Sierra Leone in 2000.  An extensive re-fit in 2002 prevented her from involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, but she was repaired in time to assist British citizens trapped by the 2006 Lebanon War.

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In the 1970s the Sea Harrier was developed for use by the Royal Navy on Invincible-class aircraft carriers like Illustrious.   The Harriers have vertical/short takeoff and landing capability and were well suited to operational use from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet.  However following the retirement of the fixed-wing Harrier II aircraft in 2010 Illustrious now operates as one of two Royal Navy helicopter carriers.  It has capacity of up to 22 helicopters with the combination of Chinook; Apache; Merlin; Lynx and Sea King.  Before their retirement, HMS Illustrious could operate up to 22 Sea Harriers/ Harrier II fixed wing planes.

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Following the Government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the decision was made to retain HMS Ocean rather than Illustrious for the longer term.  HMS Ocean is not an aircraft carrier but is an amphibious assault ship with a landing platform for helicopter and is the sole member of her class.  In May 2011 Illustrious underwent a £40 million refit to take on the helicopter carrier role while HMS Ocean undergoes a planned refit, due for completion by 2014.

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Illustrious is the oldest ship in the Royal Navy’s active fleet and it is envisaged that she will be withdrawn from service in 2014 after 32 years’ service once HMS Ocean’s refit is completed.  She will not be replaced until HMS Queen Elizabeth a new ‘super carrier’ is commissioned in 2016. The UK Ministry of Defence announced on 10 September 2012 that once she is decommissioned, Illustrious will be preserved for the nation.

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HMS Illustrious last visited Liverpool in 2009 for the Fleet Air Arm’s celebrations to mark 100 years of naval aviation.  On that occasion more than 8,000 people took the opportunity to go aboard each day and get a unique insight into life in the Royal Navy. It seemed like a similar number went on board on this visit and estimates suggest some 11,000 people visited the ship over this weekend.

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The visitors could stroll along the deck of the carrier and take in the views of the Pierhead and watch the other ships in the Mersey including the Belfast Ferry leaving from Twelve Quays across the river in Birkenhead.

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This could be HMS Illustrious last visit to Liverpool before it is decommissioned in 2014. Although there is a possibility that she could visit again over the weekend of May 24 to 27, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.  The Royal Navy has a long-standing association with the city of Liverpool and will be involved in helping the city commemorate the 70th anniversary.

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HMS Illustrious left the city this evening to return to sea to take up her next operational duties.

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