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Sailors’ pride on new aircraft carrier as Illustrious leaves Portsmouth for the last time

7 December 2016
Sailors on board the Royal Navy’s biggest ever warship HMS Queen Elizabeth have today spoken of their pride while saying farewell to their former ship Illustrious.

The Royal Navy’s former aircraft carrier will leave Portsmouth today as work continues on the imminent arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth into her home port for the first time.

Illustrious will be saluted by onlookers at the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth this morning when she leaves the harbour for the final time following a career spanning 32 years and more than 900,000 nautical miles.

Meanwhile, in Rosyth, work continues at a pace to bring HMS Queen Elizabeth to life ahead of her first entry to Portsmouth next year – and many of those on board have fond memories of Illustrious and her remarkable career.

It makes me even more aware that there are massive differences in the systems that I worked on then compared to what I work on now.

Chief Petty Officer Richard Byers

Chief Petty Officer Richard Byers, from Portsmouth, served on Illustrious twice during his career. He now serves on board HMS Queen Elizabeth and is in charge of the ship’s fire detection systems.

He said: “I was lucky enough to serve in Illustrious twice, once in 2007 and again in 2011 and I have fond memories of my time on board.

“But it makes me even more aware that there are massive differences in the systems that I worked on then compared to what I work on now.

“The amount of new technology and the amount of learning we have all had to do to take HMS Queen Elizabeth to sea represents a massive step forward and has made for some incredibly interesting times.

“I’m based in Portsmouth with my family and I’m really looking forward to getting back down there.

“I’ve been up here for nearly three years now so the first entry to Portsmouth will be a really interesting time for me.”

Leading Airman (Aircraft Handler) George Medcalf served on board Illustrious for two and a half years at the start of his career.

He said: “I really enjoyed my time on Illustrious and I’m sad to say goodbye to the ship but I had good times on board.

“Working on a ship of this size is just exciting and I’m drafted now for two years. I’m really looking forward to the exciting times ahead, especially with the F35s coming in.”

Illustrious was commissioned in 1982 at the end of the successful mission to liberate the Falkland Islands and took part in a range of operations until 2014, including evacuating Britons from the Lebanon in 2006 and delivering humanitarian aid after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013.

The ship will now be recycled by Leyal Ship Recycling Ltd following a two-year open competition which sought to retain part of all of the ship for heritage purposes in the UK. While a number of bids were received, none proved viable.

Meanwhile in Portsmouth, £120m of investment is now seeing extensive work take place to prepare the naval base for the two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

In order to prepare the harbour and dockyard infrastructure for the 65,000-tonne carriers, 276 metres of jetty have been reinforced with over 3,300 tonnes of new steel work.

New navigation lights have been installed in the harbour and Solent, with huge new fenders and gangways delivered to accommodate the giant ships.

The second of the Navy’s three Invincible-class aircraft carriers, Illustrious was built by Swan Hunter shipbuilders on the Tyne and launched by Princess Margaret in December 1978.  

Work to complete the 22,000-tonne ship was speeded up during 1982 after the outbreak of the Falklands War.

Although the conflict ended before work was finished, Illustrious rapidly deployed and played an important role in the aftermath. So quickly was she deployed, her commissioning ceremony took place at sea en route to the Falklands on June 20 1982.

During the 1990s Illustrious helped maintain the no-fly zone over Bosnia and in 1998 operated in the Gulf carrying out similar roles over southern Iraq.

She was soon called into action again in 2000, leading a task group aimed at restoring peace and stability to Sierra Leone.

The following year she played an important part in the war on terror in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks in America, staying in the region for several months.

In 2006, along with Type 42 destroyer HMS Gloucester, Illustrious helped in the evacuation of British citizens from Beirut caught up in the Israel-Lebanon crisis.

She hit the television screens in 2008 as the star of Channel 5’s six-part documentary Warship which followed her deployment to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia for a series of exercises and diplomatic visits to 20 ports.

And she made headlines around the world in 2013 when she was diverted to assist with disaster relief operations in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

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