The second report on my tour of HMS Illustrious, this time with more words and fewer pictures.
I was joined by four other fellow London Bloggers, and after meeting up and trying to watch the helicopter demonstration that was happening over the riverside, we had to leave that to register inside a tent being used by the Navy inside the college grounds. As I told the officer my name, she looked up and exclaimed (I paraphrase):
“YOU! I’ve been wanting to meet you. How do you keep finding out what our navy ships are doing?”
I was now having a slight heart-attack as I worried that I had published something on this blog or the events guide that shouldn’t have been published and caused all sorts of problems!
I explained that I use public sources such as the PLA website, the Royal Navy’s own website etc – and it actually turned out that she wanted to help with letting me know about notable events in London, so that I can then pass that information along to you who are reading this. Heart attack over, we waited outside, while the rest of the group sniggered at what happened and whether I was about to be picked up by MI5 for disclosing secrets.
After a briefing, we crocodile marched down to the pier where one of the local tourist boats had been commissioned to take visitors over the to aircraft carrier – the ship being too far from the shore for a walkway to reach. As we pulled up alongside, the boat skipper kept barking out instructions to hurry up and mind the gap as we jumped over the floating platform, then up a steep staircase to the entrance and straight into the aircraft hanger.
As you would expect, the hanger where aircraft, and general cargo is stored, is vast – with two large hydraulic lifts at either end dominating the space. What looked like torpedoes (mistaken initially for canoes!) are stored here, and we waited to be split into smaller more manageable groups. The visitors were a mixture of veterans, Scouts and some ordinary looking people, like us.
A walk along the flight deck to a side corridor to see a quick display of fire fighting kit – especially important if the ship were to be hit in action. While there are fire-fighting specialists on board, everyone is trained and quite evidently if a fire occurs, you just get on with dealing with it.
Down some steep and cramped steps to the lower floor and along to the Operations Room where all the radar etc displays are shown and a talk about how many people work here, which varies from about 6 on a quiet day to 60 during operations. I’m not sure how you fit 60 people in there, but the human spaces are cramped throughout, so I guess it works, somehow.
Now a climb up, up, up, about 6 flights to suddenly emerge onto the flight deck itself! Here, it was a general free-for-all, where we could wander round taking photos as we wished, and yes we could walk right up to the top of the “ski-jump” ramp which helps the planes take off. Going up to the top was a slightly nerve-wracking experience for your correspondent who is a bit iffy with heights, and I certainly wobbled a bit when I turned round, looked down at the flight-deck and saw how high up we are.
It certainly takes a select sort of person who could work in such an exposed environment, especially when at sea where the deck is going be moving around all over the place. I asked later about sea sickness, and while the size of the ship helps it be be more stable, people do get sea sick, especially during the first few weeks of being posted to the ship, or during bad weather. I doubt I would cope myself as I have an annoyingly delicate constitution in that regard.
We also had the delight of seeing one of the huge lifts drop down to collect some equipment (and humans) and come back up again. I noted most approvingly at the lack of fussy Health and Safety barriers while this happened. As the flight deck had just been in use for the earlier flight displays, the lift movement was functional rather than being a show-off for our benefit. In fact, even though the ship was just at anchor, there still seemed to be quite a bit of work going on around the place. I wonder if they are ever able to fully shut-down for a day?
After a while wandering round the flight deck for a while, we were taken up to the main command center, where the captain controls the ship and flight movements. Despite the vast space on the flight deck and the hanger below, the rest of the ship is a maze of very narrow corridors and stairwells, with every spare space even within the corridors used for some function or storage. The human side of the ship is surprisingly cramped when you consider the size of the whole vessel, and something worth remembering when thinking about the working life on board.
Some aspects I noted as we walked around were little things, such as some of the door signs were carved out of wood, maybe as a memory of the earliest wooden navy ships. Also, each of the stair wells had a heavy door which could be dropped down to seal off the area, but some had notes that they were to be left open during operations. I also noted the floor, which is made of steel has quite substantial textures carved into the metal to make it easier to keep your balance. Little issues, but interesting to see the thought that goes into these small, but very important aspects of the design.
After getting up to the command area, a very tiny steering column was shown – and that is what drives the ship. Yes, I know you don’t actually need a huge wheel to drive a ship now, but it is still odd to see such a tiny handle being used to control such a vast vessel.
I asked about something odd I saw, but the lady I asked said she couldn’t say what it was for. Whether that was because she didn’t know, or because I am not allowed to know I am not sure, but her smile suggested the latter.
That aside, they were very free with letting us take photos of what we saw, although we were advised to check each time, just in case something sensitive was around.
Back down to the hanger and a moment for more photos and questions and that was the tour over. We had spent a surprisingly swift hour on board, and the tour showed the key bits we would have wanted to see. The guide who took us around didn’t try to baffle us with too much technical details – this was very much a “point, look, gasp, move on” type of visit, which was frankly, exactly what worked for our group.
They alsoÂ set up a table in the hanger to sell a few mementos, and I picked up a branded mug to add to my collection of cups (I’ll explain another day). Not sure if the money went to a benevolent fund, of if I just helped to pay for a tiny bit of a missile.
We waited for a short while to leave and were suddenly ordered to step back behind a line. Thinking something exciting was about to happen, as we were standing next to the huge lifts – actually, the next tour group had arrived, and they just wanted to make sure the groups didn’t get mixed up.
That was it – sadly didn’t get a chance to say thanks to our guides as they were already dealing with the next group – and we left as we arrived, via the stairs down to the river.
Back on shore, a visit to the display for the ships which will eventually replace HMS Illustrious, the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and then a couple of beers at the aptly named Cutty Sark pub.
Overall, a fascinating visit and I saw, and learnt a lot without being overwhelmed with technical jargon, and came away with an appreciation that it takes a certain person to be able to work in such an environment. While not for me, I can imagine that life on board can be both hard work, and yet very exciting, with opportunities to visit far-flung countries.
Huge thanks to the crew and officers of HMS Illustrious for inviting us onboard, and to the Royal Navy liaison officer who arranged the details (and gave me the heart attack earlier!).
More photos at my usual Flickr Account.