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Kitty Hawk: The Best ‘Conventional’ Aircraft Carriers Ever Built

Kitty Hawk
050517-N-0120R-127.USS KITTY HAWK, At Sea (May 17, 2005) - While departing Yokosuka's harbor, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) steams past a small group of Japanese fishing vessels and steams toward Sagami Bay to conduct precision anchor checks. Currently underway in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility, Kitty Hawk demonstrates power, projection and sea control as the U.S. Navy's only permanently, forward-deployed aircraft carrier, operating from Yokosuka, Japan..U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2ND Class William H. Ramsey.

The Kitty Hawk-Class Were the Best Conventional Powered Carriers Ever Built: Built and developed in the Mad Men era, the United States Navy’s Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers were originally designed to improve upon the previous Forrestal-class. The four completed vessels were essentially three sub-classes that could be easily distinguished from their predecessors by their greater length, placement of the elevators and a smaller island positioned further aft. Its larger size was determined by the take-off and landing distances required for operating heavy attack aircraft of the era including the A-3 Skywarrior and A-5 Vigilante. Additionally, the repositioning of the number four elevator was a noted change, as it allowed for greater aircraft movement – as the elevator on the Forrestal had been on landing path and launch of the path of the number three and four catapults.

The Kitty Hawk-class warships, including its final variant USS John F. Kennedy, were the last U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to be powered by oil-fired boilers rather than a nuclear power plant. Propulsion consisted of four Westinghouse geared turbines, 280,000 shp, four shafts with eight 1,200 pounds per square inch (8,300 kPa) Foster Wheeler boilers.

Meet the Class

Three different shipyards were utilized to construct the eventual four ships of the class, with the first two: USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and USS Constellation (CV-64) being built at New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden New Jersey, and the New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, respectively. Each was commissioned in 1961 and joined the fleet four years later.

USS America (CV-66) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) were both built at Newport News Shipbuilding, and respectively entered service in 1967 and 1970.

The first three carriers of the Kitty Hawk-class were constructed with a Terrier surface-to-air missile system, which replaced the traditional 5-inch guns for air defense, but these were seen to have several issues. The supporting missile launchers and AN/SPG-55 radars consumed a large amount of the limited island space on the carrier, while at the same time essentially duplicating the capabilities of the air defense escorts. As a result, those systems were later removed.

The fourth vessel of the class, John F. Kennedy – which is now considered a sub-class – was not built with the Terrier, and instead was equipped with the shorter-ranged Sea Sparrow, Basic Point Defense Missile System (BPDMS). All were eventually equipped with NATO Sea Sparrow (NSSM) and Phalanx CIWS for self-defense. During her final upgrade/refit in 2001, USS Kitty Hawk also received two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers replacing the forward Sea Sparrow and Phalanx CIWS equipment. Additionally, an SLQ-32 Electronic Warfare Suite was added as part of the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) on Kitty Hawk and Constellation.

The third vessel of the class to be built, USS America also featured several differences from the lead units of the class. In addition to having a slightly greater displacement than the previous ships of the class, her anchor configuration was modified. Instead of two forward anchors, one on each side, America was equipped with no starboard anchor yet was provided with an additional anchor astern. That change was made to accommodate the AN/SQS-23 sonar, and as a result, CV-66 was the only post-World War II U.S. carrier to be built with sonar, though it was removed in the early 1980s. She also had a narrow smokestack compared to her first two sister carriers.

All four were of the Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers were built with steam catapults and each of the warships carried some 2,150 tons of aviation ordnance as well as about 7.38 million liters (1.95 million U.S. gallons) of aviation fuel for their respective air groups. These were actually similar in size and composition to those of the later Nimitz-class. The tactical reconnaissance element in each of the air wings was usually provided by a handful of Grumman F-14 Tomcats equipped with a digital TARPS (tactical airborne reconnaissance system) pod. The Tomcats were later replaced in all roles by the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters and strike aircraft.

All four of those U.S. Navy Cold War-era carriers were further fitted with full Anti-Submarine Classification and Analysis Center (ASCAC), Navigational Tactical Direction System (NTDS) and Tactical Flag Command Center (TFCC) facilities, America being the first carrier to be fitted with the NTDS. Each of the aircraft carriers was also equipped with the OE-82 satellite communications system, and these were the first U.S. Navy carriers able simultaneously to launch and recover aircraft – something that has been considered a tricky operation that was rarely performed.

Service History

During the Vietnam War, the first three Kitty Hawk-class carriers took part in the air war over North Vietnam, and in 1972 the crew of one of Constellation’s F-4 Phantoms – including Lt. R.H. Cunningham and Lt. (jg) W.P.Driscoll – became the first U.S. Navy aces of the Vietnam War. While the fourth carrier of the class, CV-67, wasn’t deployed to Vietnam, she was deployed to the Mediterranean and was in the region during the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East in 1973.

During the 1970s the role of the Kitty Hawk-class carriers was adapted to include an anti-submarine capability in addition to their traditional attack role.

Continuing to serve in the latter stages of the Cold War, three of the carriers passed through a SLEP (service life extension program). From 1987 to 1991 Kitty Hawk was overhauled for $785 million under the SLEP at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, while Constellation received her $800 million service life extension also in Philadelphia from 1990 to 1992. The program was intended to add 15 years to the life of the ships. USS John F. Kennedy was not overhauled as part of SLEP, but instead, from 1993 to 1995, she received a $491 million overhaul. It was the final project of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard prior to its closing.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the downsizing of the U.S. Navy’s fleet due to budget cuts, USS America was retired on August 9, 1996, without SLEPing. She had been in poor condition, and despite her historical significance was not held as a donation asset. Instead, she was expended as a live-fire target and sunk on 14 May 2005.

Constellation was decommissioned in August 2003, while John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in March 2007.  USS Kitty Hawk remained in service until early 2008, when she was replaced by USS George Washington (CVN-73) as the forward-deployed carrier in Japan. Kitty Hawk subsequently returned to the United States after the turnover and was decommissioned on January 31, 2009. It marked the end of the conventionally powered carriers in the U.S. Navy.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.

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