Aircraft Carriers of the West Coast

Among the countless interesting places and sights the States of the West Coast have to offer, even aircraft carriers need to be mentioned. There are three ‘capital sites’ that will surely appeal to war veterans, pilots, seamen, historians, technicians, children and everybody with an interest for ‘CVs’ – an acronym for ‘carrier vessels’. Two are super-museums in California, where the USS Hornet and USS Midway are permanently preserved and open to the public, and a third is the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, which is an active installation of the US Navy in the premises of the Naval Base Kitsap, where maintenance work is carried out on the current CV-fleet, and where part of the reserve fleet – including most notably some aircraft carriers – is moored.

Here you can find some photos of these sites from visits of mine in 2012 and 2014.

USS Hornet (CV-12) – Alameda, CA

This ship is an Essex-class carrier commissioned in late 1943. Since then, she saw extensive action throughout WWII in the Pacific theatre, being involved in frontline operations leading to the defeat of Japan. As a matter of fact, aircraft from this ship totalled a number of downed aircraft ranking second in the general list of aircraft carriers of the world, behind USS Essex – which enjoyed a full year of service more than Hornet during the war with Japan.

The original appearance of the ship was much different from today’s, first and foremost due to the straight-deck construction of the Essex-class – just like all other carriers until the Fifties. For Hornet the current shape of the deck is the result of SCB-125 modification in 1956, introducing an angled landing deck. This feature, which came along with other major changes to the overall structure also resulting in a significant weight increase, allowed independent take-off and landing operations. Differently from other ships of the class, Hornet wasn’t upgraded in the late-fifties with steam-powered catapults, retaining hydraulically powered ones instead, thus being incapable of launching heavier aircraft like the Phantom, Intruder, Vigilante, or even the Hawkeye. It was then assigned to a support role as an ASW carrier, equipped with Tracker aircraft and helicopters for anti-submarine missions.

In the late Sixties Hornet was involved in the race to the Moon, serving as a rescue platform for the first moonwalkers returning from the succesful Apollo 11 mission, and subsequently in the same role for the astronauts of Apollo 12.

Similarly to all other Essex-class vessels – with the exception of the venerable USS Lexington, operated as a training ship until late 1991! – it saw limited action in the Vietnam War, when much larger and more suited carriers had become available for war operations, and it was retired in the early Seventies.

During your visit you are basically free to move all around the many well-preserved areas under the flight deck.

There you can see the striking proportions of this relatively ‘small’ carrier. The mechanism of the central elevator can be seen to the bow of the ship. An impressive table with the number of targets hit recalls the primary role this ship had in WWII.

On the main aircraft storage level there are some preserved aircraft, not all from the history of this unit. Among the many interesting features in this area, a replica of the helicopter which took the astronauts of Apollo 11 on board. This very helicopter was used in Ron Howard’s movie ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks. Also the mobile quarantine facility for the astronauts can be found here. Neil Armstrong’s very footsteps from the helicopter to the quarantine facility are marked with white paint.

Moving back to the stern of the ship it is possible to visit a very interesting technical area for aircraft maintenance and servicing, as well as for mission preparation. It reminds the primary role of aircraft carriers as a frontline-deployed, moving airbases, with everything that is necessary for operating the aircraft onboard on a regular basis for offensive missions. A hatch leading to the compartments on the lower levels has been left open, and this allows to appreciate the actual size of the ship, really huge, with multiple storage levels for aircraft spare parts and ordnance.

Also very interesting are the big fireproof sliding doors for cutting the aircraft storage deck into compartments in the event of fire – possibly due to some ordnance piercing the deck of the ship, as well as to accidental causes.

Further interesting sights in the self-guided part of the visit include the operational briefing room, some service rooms, dormitories and a large area for the anchor moving mechanisms.

A second part of the tour is guided. You move around is small groups and you access the flight deck and the ‘island’, the command and control center of all operations – deck management, flight mission control, and ship control & navigation. The guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic veterans, able to tell you detailed explanations of what you see as well as anecdotes from the history of the ship.

The Presidential Seal has been placed where president Nixon was standing to oversee the recovery of the moonwalkers from Apollo 11.

This part of the visit will be extremely interesting for more technically minded subjects – you will see original wind signals for landing aircraft, an original LORAN navigation device for sea navigation, the normal and emergency arresting systems, the Fresnel optical landing aid system, and tons of other extremely interesting items which were actually used in real operations.

From the stern of the ship and the flight deck it is possible to take fantastic pictures of downtown SFO.

Extra Feature – Treasure Island Pan Am Terminal

A little ‘extra’ you can find on your way if you are travelling from San Francisco via the SFO-Oakland Bay Bridge to the site fo the USS Hornet is Treasure Island. This artificial island was taken out of the water at the end of the Thirties for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Coincidentally, Pan Am, which had recently inaugurated its trans-Pacific ‘Clipper’ air service with the huge Boeing 314 seaplane, built a facility on the island, with a passenger terminal and service hangars for maintenance. Operation of the Clipper were moved here for good, and the aircraft took off and alighted on water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, the smaller natural island to the south – the cove is today called Clipper Cove. Later on the service was relocated to Alameda as the island was taken over by the military.

Unlike most of the buildings dating from the exhibition, wiped out soon after it, the terminal survived and it is a proportionate, nice example of the airport building style of the late Thirties.

Also the foundations of some of the original passenger pier, as well as concrete slides for seaplane operations on the shore of Clipper Bay, can be seen still today. The Pan Am terminal building was used to simulate the terminal at Berlin Tempelhof in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Treasure Island is also a good place for taking pictures of downtown SFO, as well as the most famous items on the bay – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting There

The ship is permanently anchored by one of the piers close to the former Alameda NAS, on the southern side of the island of Alameda. It can be reached very conveniently and quickly from downtown San Francisco via the Oakland bridge (I-80), and from Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and all districts on the eastern side of the bay. Full explanation and info on their website. Treasure Island is located roughly mid-way along the Oakland Bridge. Visiting the Pan Am terminal is a quick detour from the interstate. Large parking nearby both sites.

USS Midway (CV-41) – San Diego, CA

This is the first and the only remaining of the three Midway-class ‘super carriers’ – which included USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea. The origin of the class dates back to WWII, when it was decided that larger, armored, metal decks were to replace the vulnerable wooden decks of the Essex-class carriers. USS Midway was commissioned in September 1945, immediately after VJ-Day, with a straight deck, albeit steel-made. The steel construction was considered a relevant asset for jet aircraft operations, and all three carriers were kept in active service following the progressive transition to the new type of aircraft propulsion, with only minor modifications needed to the flight deck.

USS Midway was involved in the early stages of US missile experimentation, with the first tests of sea launched V-2 rocket clones, originating from the German design, and Regulus I air-breathing cruise missile.

The current shape of USS Midway is the result of subsequent major modifications. Program SCB-110 in the late Fifties added the angled deck to enhance simultaneous launch and recovery operations and flexible flight deck operations. Also the curved ‘hurricane-proof’ bow was added, together with steam-powered catapults.

In 1966 this ship was the only of the three of her class to receive the very expensive SCB-101.66 modification, resulting in a lengthening of the flight deck, the adoption of more powerful steam catapults and a new arrangement of the higher-load elevators. All three ships were on active duty in Vietnam, USS Midway apparently launching the first and last US air attacks of the war.

Even though USS Midway – the largest and best equipped of the three – could not operate the Tomcat, it could take four squadrons of Hornets, thus remaining effective in frontline service well into the Gulf War in the early Nineties, the last major operation in which she was involved before retirement and re-opening as a permanent exhibition – notably among the most popular in San Diego alongside the zoo.

Similarly to the USS Hornet described above, the tour of the Midway starts with a self-guided exploration of the aircraft storage deck and of the air deck. Among the tons of interesting sights here, to the bow you can find under the air deck the steam reservoir for the catapults and the system for moving the anchors.

Further back the main hangar for storing the aircraft is really huge. You can get an impression of the size of the ship by looking at the lower storage levels, where jet engines and air-launched ordnance are still visible.

With respect to the USS Hornet the exhibition is somewhat more ‘lively’, also with some reconstructed scenes, notice-boards, prepared dinner tables and so on. On the cons side, the place can get really crowded.

You can explore the crew areas, with dormitories, kitchens, canteens, medical services – including a fully equipped surgery compartment.

Most interesting is the propulsion system. Midway-class ships, as well as the later Forrestal-class, were all conventionally powered – non nuclear. Oil was supplied to burners, heating water and generating steam. By supplying steam to turbines mechanical power was obtained and transferred to the propeller shafts. This involved monstrous reduction gears. You can see the control room of this very complex system as well as burners, turbines gearboxes and propeller shafts, all explained with technical schemes – this will be extremely interesting for technically minded people. Close by, the similarly important air conditioning and ventilation system – an ancillary system at a first glance, it is absolutely necessary for all computers and electronics.

Other interesting sights are the briefing rooms for both flying and non-flying personnel, the chapel, and the inertial navigation system – buried close to the buoyancy center of the ship to reduce the influence of oscillations.

On the deck there is a collection of aircraft, most of them from the operational history of this unit. Also visible is the Fresnel optical landing aid.

Similarly to the USS Hornet, you can join a guided tour for a visit to the ‘island’. This is much roomier than that of the older Essex-class ship. You are provided clear explanations by very competent guides as you tour the navigation room, flight control and ship control areas.

From the deck you are offered a view of North Island NAS. Until she left for her new home port in Yokosuka, Japan, you could often see here USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), a nuclear powered, Nimitz-class carrier commissioned in the 2003 and home based in San Diego at the time of my visit.

Other Nimitz-class carriers are currently based here.

Getting There

The USS Midway museum is among the best known museums in Southern California, and it’s really hard to miss it due to the prominent place on the waterfront next to downtown San Diego. Large parking on the pier nearby. For planning your visit have a look to their website.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Naval Base Kitsap – Bremerton, WA

The Naval Base Kitsap with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard are major installations of the Navy. The Shipyard dates from before WWI, and albeit a small museum on the topic exists close to the ‘civil’ port of Bremerton, clearly the installation is not possible to visit, for it is surrounded by the base. Luckily, the Shipyard is neither much hidden nor far from the street running along the waterfront, and the size of aircraft carriers makes them rather difficult to deceive… This leaves the opportunity to take a look at what is moored here by simply moving around a bit in the hilly area of Bremerton until you find a suitable spot for taking pictures. You can also walk to the waterfront, and find some isolated spots from where you can take some impressive shots without even coming close to violating the perimeter of the base.

Some pictures can be taken from the sea if you are leaving or arriving with a ferry-boat.

The Shipyard is where modifications are carried out on most vessels. Besides running the Shipyard, the Naval Base Kitsap acts as a home port for some ships, including some active aircraft carriers and many submarines. The Shipyard facility has been used for storing vessels in a mothballed condition and for stripping those to be sold for scrap of some lighter hardware. The latter are those placed in the most peripheral area of the base, and the easiest to see.

When I visited in 2012 the base was very busy.

In the pictures you can see two Forrestal-class ships – USS Independence and USS Ranger – and two ‘Improved Forrestal’, Kitty-Hawk-class ships – USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation. As of late 2016 Ranger and Constellation have been transferred to Brownsville, TX for scrapping, while Independence is to follow and is awaiting towing for early 2017.

USS Kitty Hawk remains in a mothballed status and there is some interest to preserve it as a museum somewhere, for together with USS John F. Kennedy they remain the only Forrestal-class ships still in a relatively good shape.

The eight Forrestal/Improved Forrestal-class aircraft carriers were the first conceived with an angled deck. They constituted the backbone of the US carrier fleet of the Cold War in the late Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies, when the nuclear powered USS Nimitz was commissioned. Many of them were deeply involved in Vietnam operations. All of them remained active until the Nineties and were involved in operations all over the world, a true icon of the might of the US Navy.

Besides the mothballed or scrapyard-due fleet, you can find in Bremerton some carriers on active duty at the Naval Base Kitsap. At the time of my visit, I could see the Nimitz-class USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) – the latter is the one undergoing maintenance in the pictures. Kitsap is a huge base of the US Navy, among the largest in the US, and home port for many strategic submarines.

Getting There & Moving Around

The most convenient way to see the mothballed fleet is from Charleston Boulevard, approaching from the west along the waterfront. There is chance of parking in a somewhat deserted area out of the perimeter of the base. When leaving with the ferry from Bremerton port, you are allowed a view of the easternmost part of the base.

Jüterbog/Niedergörsdorf – Abandoned Flight Academy in the GDR

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The area around the small town of Jüterbog – located 60 miles south of Berlin – has a long military tradition, with storages, barracks and training installations in place since the years of the Kaiser and Bismarck, about mid-19th century.

The region was selected for building one of the first flight academies in Germany before WWI, and flight activities with airships and other exotic flying material from the early age of aviation took place in those years.

Much was forcibly dismantled following the defeat of Germany in 1918, but the place regained primary attention with the advent of Hitler and the Nazi party to power. Among the various military installations built in the area, a modern flight academy was erected anew – baptized ‘Fliegertechnische Schule Niedergörsdorf’.

Initial technical training for both ground and flying staff of the Luftwaffe was imparted here until the break out of WWII and the conquest of Poland, when the academy moved to Warsaw.

The extensive group of buildings in Jüterbog retained a primary role in the advanced training of flight officers and engineers, aircraft and engine technicians. Technical personnel were trained to operate innovative weapon systems, in collaboration with research centers of the Luftwaffe.

With the end of the war the region fell under Soviet rule, and the military facilities – including the academy, which survived the war largely intact – were reassigned to various functions.

Info is available in less detail about this part of the story, as typical with military bases in the territories occupied by the Soviets… Part of the buildings of the academy were used again for training staff of tank divisions, but also a KGB station was reportedly activated there. As with most Soviet installations, it was given back to reunified Germany by 1994.

The place is since then abandoned, but differently from other sites formerly managed by the Soviets, it has been inscribed in the registry of landmark buildings, being an interesting specimen of Nazi military architecture.

Following WWII, the nearby airbase of Jüterbog – about a mile south of the academy complex – was operated both by East German (GDR) and Soviet air combat groups, until the Russians left in 1992. Soon after, the airport was permanently closed and partly dismantled. Unlike other Soviet bases in the GDR, flying units there never upgraded to MiG-29, so the aircraft shelters you can see there are of the oldest types.

I would suggest visiting the site for two reasons, a) the uniqueness of the architectural composition, with much of what you see dating back from the Nazi era – you can clearly notice the typical Nazi ‘sheer grandeur’, differing from the often poor and shabby Soviet military architecture… b) the very famous mural of the Soviet Soldier, which apart from the result of a little attack by an ignorant writer, is still in an almost perfect shape.

The following photographs were taken in late August 2016.

Sights

Niedergörsdorf Flight Academy

It should be pointed out that this place is actually off-limits, and there are clear prohibition signs at least on the front gate. Furthermore, it is not an isolated installation, but surrounded by other buildings, close to a small but active railway station and not far from a supermarket. Accessing the site via the blocked main gate is clearly not possible.

Finding an easy way in is not difficult, but standing to the signs on the gate, the place is also actively guarded, so you should be quick and concentrated when moving around. In order to shorten your time in, I suggest turning your attention to the northernmost part of the site.

Walking along the northern perimeter inside the base some Cold War, not very artistically significant murals can be spotted on the external wall made of the usual Soviet concrete slabs.

From there you can easily reach the semicircular building of the grand hall, probably the most notable of the base, and the one where the famous mural of the Soviet Soldier is.

When moving around the corner from the back to the front façade of the building, you find yourself on the road leading to the blocked main gate. You may be spotted from outside the base, so be careful.

Once in the area in front of the semicircular building, you can see to the south a nice perspective of the other buildings of the academy, surrounding a large inner court.

The inside of the main semicircular building – which should not be accessed – is in a state of disrepair.

There are two main floors and a less interesting third attic floor.

The beautiful mural of the Soviet Soldier can be easily found close to the stairs.

Here are some other details of this nice and sober example of Soviet monumental art.

Many other parts of the lower floors are covered in painted decorations, but these were probably of lower quality with respect to the Soviet Soldier – which appears to be a real fresco – and are today falling from the walls.

Another highlight of the visit to this building is the grand theatre. You should consider going with a tripod and/or a powerful torchlight for getting better photos than these, for the room is totally dark. Very creepy, btw…!

On the former part of the sports arena to the west of the building complex it is possible to spot a new little gym. Possibly to your surprise you will find the place is still run by a sporting club – this is nice, also for getting a better idea of how the place looked like when it was an active training center. On the cons side, walking around undercover is not easy, and maybe you are violating a private property ‘no trespassing’ instruction – even though I didn’t notice any.

An interesting part of the sports arena is the abandoned pool, which I guess was already part of the Nazi construction plan too – check photographs of postcards of the time on the Internet.

To get an impression of the complex from above, you may have a look to aerial pictures taken during a dedicated flight, reported here.

Jüterbog Airbase

A quick visit to the airbase south of the academy can reveal some interesting sights, including aircraft shelters from the early Cold War era which have been converted to hay storages or garages for agricultural vehicles. Many former taxiways can be freely accessed by car, some of them have been turned into ‘official’ roads. Also the apron in front of the large maintainance hangars can be accessed with a car with no restriction.

A small aeroclub operates with trikes from a new narrow grass runway in the northwestern part of the field, so access to this part of the field is restricted. Interestingly, much of the external fence with barbed wire is still in place around this area.

Other activities on site include go-karting. To the east of the base, part of the shelters are occupied by a strange new ‘futuristic town’, similar to what you find in the former Soviet base at Rechlin/Laerz.

For a comprehensive set of aerial pictures of the base, taken during a flight over the area, have a look to this post.

Compared to other Soviet bases in East Germany, Jüterbog doesn’t offer much to the curious urban explorer today. Yet due to the vicinity of the flight academy it’s surely worth a visit. Furthermore, the countryside around is nice – apart from the unpleasant sight of a real forest of wind turbines! – so you may choose to have a walk around just for pleasure.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the former flight academy is an easy task. The main gate is on Kastanienallee, Niedergörsdorf, and it can be accessed with a 0.1 miles walk from the Altes Lager railway station, again in Niedergorsdorf, Brandenburg. There is a convenient small parking besides the railway station. In case you want to explore the site, I would suggest considering this as a trailhead.

The area of Niedergörsdorf and Jüterbog can be reached in about 1 h 15 min from downtown Berlin by car. This is my preferred way for moving around – I hate having tight schedules when exploring! – but reaching the ‘operational zone’ by train from Berlin would take probably a bit less.

For visiting the base at Jüterbog you will need a car. Driving on the former taxiways is part of the fun when touring the base!

There are aircraft shelters both on the northern and southern sides of the runway, which is oriented in an east-western direction. The most convenient to come close to are those on the northern side, but be careful not to interfere with the many private businesses around. Barb wire fence can be found on the northwestern corner of the base.

I would suggest having a quick look at the Google map of the area for deciding how to move around. I wouldn’t rate these two ‘attractions’ difficult to visit in terms of physical barriers or when it comes to keeping the right course.