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Our photo essay of the USS Kitty Hawk’s final sea voyage

The USS Kitty Hawk

USS Kitty Hawk was named for the site of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903. The lead ship of the Navy’s second class of “super carriers” and the second ship in the Navy to bear the name, she was commissioned on April 21, 1963, as an attack aircraft carrier.

After a voyage around South America, the ship joined the Pacific Fleet. Her initial cruises were off the west coast and on to Japan in 1963 and 1964. During the latter half of the 1960s, the Kitty Hawk engaged in combat operations throughout Southeast Asia. In 1973, she underwent an overhaul to make her a multi-purpose carrier.

The rest of the 1970s saw Kitty Hawk deployed to the Western Pacific. On a single deployment that spanned 1979 and 1980, the ship was sent to help rescue Vietnamese refugees, provide support after the assassination of the Korean president, and sent to the North Arabian Sea during the Iran hostage crisis.

Throughout the rest of her career, the Kitty Hawk continued operations around the Pacific and Middle East. She was involved with various actions in Iraq from the 1990s onward. From August 1998, the Kitty Hawk was homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, where she relieved the USS Independence as the only forward-deployed aircraft carrier in the Navy. The Kitty Hawk left Japan for the last time in mid-2008, meeting the USS George Washington for turn-over. The George Washington replaced the Kitty Hawk in Japan.

Decommissioned on May 12, 2009, the Kitty Hawk is the second-longest-serving active American Warship in the Pacific. On Jan. 15, 2022, she left the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, under tow by the Michele Foss, en route to Brownsville, Texas, for scrapping.

Builder: New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, NJ

Keel Laid: Dec. 27, 1951

Launched: May 21, 1960

Commissioned: April 29, 1961

Decommissioned: May 12, 2009

Map shows USS Kitty Hawk path from "BREMERTON" to "BROWNSVILLE" around the tip of South America. The map reads, "16,350 nautical miles" and "ALWAYS SAFE. ALWAYS READY."

What lies ahead

On Jan. 15, 2022, Kitty Hawk left the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, under tow, en route to Brownsville, Texas, for scrapping. As she is too big to transit the Panama Canal, she will instead go by way of the Straits of Magellan.

“Her beam is too wide to utilize the new Panama Canal,” explained Foss Maritime’s Michael Loomis, the project’s manager. “The beam of the ship at its widest part is 282 feet, but the new Panama Canal locks are only 180 feet wide…the Straits of Magellan is a major transit route for those ships not using the Panama Canal. Our route was planned for the distance the Michele Foss could travel before needing fuel and provisions.”

One major danger along the route is the rounding of South America, as there are frequent storms that form in Antarctica and work their way up, creating high winds and rough seas.

“At one point during the voyage, before arriving at the Straits, the Michele Foss experienced 25-foot seas and 60-knot winds.”

And since the pandemic was still very present during the project, Loomis said Foss took precautions to keep the crew members and its traveling shoreside support team safe during each port call and crew change.

“There was intensive planning before the departure of the Michele Foss to make sure that all scenarios were planned for, such as medical emergencies in remote parts of the world, critical spares needed, coordination with agents in foreign ports, fuel locations, and availability, and COVID protocols for countries with port of calls.”

USS Kitty Hawk ready to leave Washington. The Tacoma Dome in the background.

Leaving Seattle

The Michele Foss left Seattle towing the Kitty Hawk on Jan. 15, 2022, as planned. Foss Maritime chose the Michele Foss, one of the company’s three Sister Class vessels, due to her more than 100 metric tons of bollard pull—one of the Navy’s requirements for the job.

“She was also the only one currently on the West Coast at the start of the project, as the other two were in the Gulf,” Loomis explained. “Ocean tugboats are designed specifically for this purpose—to tow items over long distances. Their propulsion, propellers, and rudders all allow them to do the job. They are powerful, yet in small packages compared to what they are able to tow.”

See the specifications of the Kittyhawk compared to the Michele below:

USS Kitty Hawk

Length: 1,069 feet

Beam: 130-foot waterline, 282-foot flight deck extreme

Displacement: 62,000 tons

Michele Foss

Length: 132 feet

Beam: 44 feet

Displacement: 1,276 tons

There were no personnel on the Kitty Hawk during the voyage, Loomis said, though during each port call, the customer and members of Foss would board and inspect her for water intrusion in the 18 spaces in the ship that had openings to  the ocean. The average speed over the entire voyage was 6 knots, though there were times she was moving slower than 2 knots, and her fastest was moving through the Straits of Magellan with the tide swing at 13.4 knots.

Michele Foss powering through choppy waters, Kitty Hawk looms to the left.

Crewing the Michele Foss

According to Project Manager Michael Loomis, crew members for the Kitty Hawk voyage were selected based on their skill sets, having performed similar difficult long voyages.

Michele Foss Crew

Captain Steve Creech
Captain Cooper Lange

Chief Mate Ryan Moore
Chief Mate Adam Davis

Second Mate Max Tolson-Demmer
Second Mate Andrew Johnson

Chief Engineer Jim Taylor
Chief Engineer Mike Lunetta
Chief Engineer Ray Blocher
Chief Engineer Jon Williams

Asst Engineer William O’Reilly
Asst Engineer Shaun Thomson
Asst Engineer Donald Nicols
Asst Engineer Jimmy Daugherty
Asst Engineer Jim Burton

AB Deckhand Shane Bowman
AB Deckhand Brian Kibler
AB Deckhand Thomas Stevens
AB Deckhand Matt Wardell
AB Deckhand Chris Schamber

AB Cook Abe Guellar
AB Cook Gary Trupiano

Capt. Steve Creech explained how he and the crew members who took the Kitty Hawk from Seattle were relieved roughly halfway through the journey.

“My hitch was just over 60 days,” he said. “There was definitely a lot of nostalgia that accompanied us on board. With the Kitty Hawk being such a famous carrier, you can sort of reach out anywhere and there’s someone in the family, or a friend of the family, with ties to her. I got a lot of messages from people asking me to take pictures.”

Creech, whose normal schedule sees him captaining tugs up in Alaska’s Arctic Circle, described the Kitty Hawk journey as “pretty relaxed.”

“It’s a big tow, but at the same time, it’s just a tow. Once you’re out and the line is stretched, we’re four hours on and eight off. We only ran into weather a couple of times.”

Safety along the way

USS Kitty Hawk, from the bow, anchored. Foss tug in the background.

Regarding safety, Project Manager Michael Loomis explained how Foss has a robust SMS (Safety Management System) in place.

“But we had to add a COVID precaution to keep traveling crew members and shoreside teams safe during vessel visits,” he explained. “And with any long-distance tow, our concern is weather and crew safety, which we monitored with our weather service provider throughout the voyage.”

Jamie Ann, tugboat, passing the anchored Kitty Hawk.

Kitty Hawk connections

Sean Casella joined the Navy and was assigned to the Kitty Hawk as an E-3 AN/US NAVY right out of high school.

“I immediately appreciated the history she held,” said Casella, who now works as a Material Specialist for the Hotel Engineering Dept. at the Walt Disney Co. in Anaheim, California. “The Kitty Hawk was such a pivotal ship in the battlegroup, being stationed in Japan and being forward deployed.”

Casella explained that he had kept up with the ship—his one away from home—since being discharged from the Navy in 2007, especially since he knew she would be decommissioned.

“Watching the Foss tow online was definitely bittersweet, but a great opportunity to follow her every movement up until her final resting spot.”

Tom Doron retired as Chief Engineer of the Thea Foss in April. His memories of the Kitty Hawk date to his childhood.

“I still believe that my experience on the Kitty Hawk influenced my life trajectory,” he said. “Never underestimate the formative effects of having a naval officer father and dedicated naval officer’s wife as a mom. Being taken aboard the Kitty Hawk (as a child) melded the mysteries of Dad’s great tales and the reality of Mom’s elegance into a permanent impression that ships and ship life was meant to be an immersion in formality, grandeur, and elegance. I have always maintained a reverence for the big naval ships that shaped my parents’ lives…being able to scamper the length of the flight deck, gaze into the innards of an aircraft on the hangar deck, wander through the maze of passageways, feeling the vibration of generator engines, the hum of a working machine was profound. The balance of the experience being had in the officer’s wardroom; men in uniform, countless stewards attending my every need at the table. The air of sophistication permeating my young impressionable mind.”

Naval life was all Doran knew from birth until his teens.

“This singular experience on Kitty Hawk occurred, I estimate, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, in the mid-1960s,” he said. “The aircraft carrier was moored in San Diego at the time. My family has a wonderful home in a suburb of San Diego. We visited the shipyards whenever there were events and “open houses” on board various vessels. I have to point out now that being turned loose unsupervised on an aircraft carrier is inconceivable. I cherish those memories of feeling the privilege of being the son of a Commanding Officer.”

From the stern of a Foss tug, Kitty Hawk is towed away from the setting sun.

A journey of many

Project Manager Michael Loomis said that, for the most part, all ports of call went smoothly “with a few small hiccups, such as there being only a single fueling tanker in the area and weather not allowing for fueling on the day that we were scheduled, so we had to wait until the next available timing seven days later.”

Loomis explained that crew members weren’t allowed shore time because of the COVID precautions in each foreign country.

“Also, most of our port calls were short, and a lot of things were happening, such as fueling, provisions, customs, inspections, and M & R, but crew members were an active part of the social media process, as many of the photos and videos were taken by them.”

A few tugboats escort Kitty Hawk near shore.

Arriving in Brownsville

The Michele Foss-towed Kitty Hawk arrived in Brownsville, Texas, on May 31, 2022, only 10 days past her original anticipated arrival date. Crowds gathered along the shore as International Shipbreaking Ltd. held an arrival ceremony at the Cameron County Amphitheater at Isla Blanca Park.

“There were many people who came to watch the arrival of the Kitty Hawk, both from the shore and by boat,” Loomis said. “People lined the Jetty and boarded tour boats to see the grand ship’s arrival.”

3 Foss tugboats navigate the Kitty Hawk through shallow water.

Loomis said International Shipbreaking Limited (ISL) organized a ceremony at a small pavilion right on the shore.

“They had a bagpiper, speeches by former Kitty Hawk crew members, and a moment of silence when the Kitty Hawk passed by. It was nice to speak with those who served on her, and they appreciated the professionalism Foss showed taking care of their girl on her final voyage.”

The Michele Foss remains in the Gulf, Loomis said, as she has another project upcoming. She’s currently in Galveston at Gulf Copper Shipyard, “getting a little spa as she was working non-stop for the last five-and-a-half months.”

Watch the USS Kitty Hawk’s arrival in Brownsville, Texas, here!

Atop down photo of Foss tugboat pulling the Kitty Hawk through a vast stretch of sea.

What happens next?

Brownsville Navigation District Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Ralph Cowen joined dignitaries to bid farewell to the Kitty Hawk.

“The ship recycling facilities at the Port of Brownsville have anchored our reputation as the premier ship recycling port of the United States. The skilled hands within our shipyards have been entrusted to carry out the respectful disassembly of aircraft carriers and other maritime vessels,” said BND Vice Chairman Ralph Cowen.

Since 2014, the Port of Brownsville has been the last port of call for five U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers. The USS Kitty Hawk is the sixth to arrive at the port.

The ISL will begin to clean the Kitty Hawk of toxic materials and chemicals, then cut large modules of the ship so they can move them to shore to work, cutting them down into smaller pieces and sorting all the different metal types, Loomis explained.

The process will start immediately, and it will take roughly 18 to 24 months to scrap the ship completely. Specific metal from the ship, such as the armor plate, will be sent back to the Navy to be utilized in new ship builds, and other materials will be sold and manufactured into products.

The silhouette of the USS Kitty Hawk cuts through calm waters which reflect the striking orange sky.

The Kitty Hawk and her sailors—a lasting legacy

Online, upwards of 10,000 Kitty Hawk veterans and their family members organized into groups to commemorate the end of her journey.

“We were young men when we walked her decks, but she gave us a lifetime of pride knowing we set sail, lived, fought, and some died on her decks. She was the single greatest experience of my life. She will live in our thoughts forever,” wrote James Ludolph in the Facebook group, The Final Kitty Hawk Voyage.

“My dad was on a ship that protected the Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. And now, on its final voyage, my big brother is on one of the tugs bringing it to its final destination,” Heather Thompson shared.

“That wonderful ship and crew of 1995 saved my son’s life. Over 5,000 men donated blood for my newborn baby’s open-heart surgery,” wrote Jesse Whisenhunt.

In the group, Friends of the USS Kitty Hawk, Josh Jordan wrote, “My father served on the Kitty Hawk before I was born. Seeing his photos…are memories that will stay with me forever. We once visited the Vietnam Memorial wall in D.C. during a family vacation, and it was the only time in my life that I saw him in tears. We didn’t talk about it then, but later I learned that a member of the crew and his closest friend in the service had died…I am now nearing 50 years old, and I still think about my father and the Kitty Hawk. It has always given me comfort knowing that she is still afloat, just as my father is still alive and well. Now… as the Kitty Hawk is on her final voyage, I am reminded that all things come to an end. It is time to phone my dad and hear his stories one more time.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.