El Niño Poses Threat to Historic Aircraft Carrier Hornet

Army Lieut. Col. James H. Doolittle, taking off from USS Hornet (CV 8), Capt. Marc A. Mitscher commanding, bombed Tokyo, the first American air strike against the Japanese homeland. (U.S. Navy photo)
Army Lieut. Col. James H. Doolittle, taking off from USS Hornet (CV 8), Capt. Marc A. Mitscher commanding, bombed Tokyo, the first American air strike against the Japanese homeland. (U.S. Navy photo)

The aircraft carrier Hornet, which made history in three wars and in the first human mission to the moon, has a new enemy -- El Niño.

The heavy winter rains expected to result from the El Niño weather pattern may have a devastating effect on the ship, now a floating museum in Alameda. The reason: The ship's 100,000-square-foot teak flight deck has sprung multiple leaks.

The Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation which owns the ship, has hired a contractor who is working between storms to patch up the deck, an $800,000 project that carries a bit of urgency. "We have to do something quickly," said Jill Rapposelli, the foundation's executive director. "We're trying to beat the rain."

The problem is that the flight deck, where the ship's airplanes landed and took off, has developed cracks over time. The deck has several layers: a non-skid material, then teak, then steel. No major work has been done on the deck since the Hornet was retired from active duty in 1970, so there is 35 years worth of deferred maintenance.

The flight deck is big enough to be used as a floating airport, and has been open to the sea, the sun, wind and rain, not to mention the pounding of thousands of aircraft over a long Navy career.

Rotting and rusting

Water has seeped through the cracks, and "the old teak is rotting and the steel is rusting," Rapposelli said.

Rapposelli and operations manager Scott Zirger offered a recent tour of the ship and pointed out rainwater pooled in the gaps where the deck had opened up.

But the problem goes deeper. Rapposelli and Zirgen led the way below, down steep ladders and through steel decks, to the big cabin where admirals and captains had meetings and briefings during the ship's Navy service. The rain had penetrated the ceiling -- called "the overhead" on ships -- and damaged the floor tiles and the walls below.

In one corner of the big cabin, where the top brass planned wartime strategy, is a plastic garbage bucket to catch the rainwater.

The leaks have been a problem for awhile. "On the days when we had big rainstorms last year it leaked so much we had to shut down the ship," Zirger said.

That was last December, but then the rains stopped and the long drought resumed. That was a bad thing for California and the West, but a good thing for a ship with what is, in effect, a leaky roof.

Temporary quick fix

It gave the foundation time to raise some money and hire a contractor to apply a polyaspartic coating. "A temporary fix, good for the next couple of years," Rapposelli said.

The foundation got about $250,000 in grants and raised $425,000 from the ship's supporters. They are still $125,000 short, and are looking for the extra money. The Hornet, which opened as a museum in 1998, gets no government funds.

"We are completely self-supporting," Rapposelli said.

The ship's income comes from admissions, rentals, tours by school groups and private events held on board.

The Hornet foundation would like to permanently replace the flight deck, a project that would cost $8 million to $10 million, Rapposelli said.

The Hornet's leaky deck and the problems caused by it are typical of the issues facing museum ships run by nonprofit organizations. Expectations are high.

When the Hornet opened as a museum there were projections that it would draw 800,000 visitors a year. The actual number, Rapposelli said, is closer to 80,000. Part of that is due to the fact that the 872-foot-long ship is docked in Alameda, which is not on the radar for most Bay Area tourists.

The ship comes with a lot of history. It was commissioned 72 years ago to replace an earlier Hornet, a famous ship that carried B-25 bombers that made the first air raid on Tokyo. Planes from the new Hornet shot down 1,200 Japanese planes, and it was attacked several times but never was hit.

It also served in the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. In 1969, the Hornet was the recovery ship that picked up two lunar landing missions. The first two humans to land on the moon spent their first day back on this planet aboard the Hornet.

The ship has an extensive collection of aircraft from its Navy service and two spacecraft.

"The USS Hornet has been on the front lines of history," Rapposelli said, "It's an engineering and scientific marvel. It's a tough job to keep it up and we need the support of the public to help repair our aging flight deck."

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