Berthed at Manhattan’s Pier 86 in the Hudson River is a superstructure that floated, moved, and accommodated the population of a sizable town. It was integral in the Second, Cold, and Vietnam wars; served as the base of many air groups operating both piston and pure-jet aircraft; became the target of torpedo and kamikaze strikes; and survived as a testimonial to its tenacity and contribution to victory as an air, sea, and space museum.
Featuring a 912-foot overall length and 103-foot breadth, the ship, displacing 41,434 tons and capable of a 33-knot speed, accommodated 100 airplanes and almost 4,000 crew members. It was commissioned as CV-11 on August 16, 1943.
World War II
Thudding onto its deck two months later, on October 16, and snatching one of 16 arresting cables with its tail hook, a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat belonging to Air Group 8 marked its initial landing and was soon joined by Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver dive bombers and Avenger TBF Torpedo bombers that completed its fleet.
After orientation forays in the Caribbean and up to Maine, the ship, having been subjected to provisioning and carrier operation testing, embarked on its first tour on December 3, by way of the Panama Canal, joining Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Pacific Fifth Fleet.
Re-equipped with Air Group 6 in Pearl Harbor, it departed on January 16 as part of the new Task Force 58, comprised of carriers Cabot and Essex, now bound for the Marshall Islands.
It engaged in its first combat exchange, during which its Avengers, Dauntlesses, and Hellcats were tasked with the disabling or destruction of the Roi and Namur islands located 42 miles north of Kwajalein. It aided in killing 8,500 Japanese by the second day, demonstrating that Japan’s island fortresses were unable to defend themselves against the US Navy’s carrier force. Aerial retaliation with its Zero fighters was nonexistent.
One of Intrepid’s major engagements was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, taking place in October of 1944 and intended to strip Japan of its control of the Philippines and the sea lane to its oil supplying colonies in the south.
During its three and a half years of duty, the Intrepid destroyed 301 Japanese aircraft and sank, or helped sink, 122 ships, including the two super prizes, Musashi and Yamato.
The Intrepid was decommissioned on March 22, 1947.
While the Intrepid languished as part of the Pacific Reserve Fleet—a holding pattern between being resurrected back to life or cleared to the afterlife as scrap—war’s flames, once again erupting on July 25, 1950, raged—in this case in Korea.
Although a new generation of aircraft carriers, capable of launching tactical jet fighters, was authorized for these operations, the required time and cost to construct them was prohibitive, leaving the Navy little choice but to modernize and recommission its now outdated Ticonderoga and Essex class ships, of which Intrepid was one.
Its own modernization program, entailing the installation of a reinforced flight deck, steam catapults to handle pure-jet aircraft, relocated aircraft elevators, and state-of-the-art radar and electronics, required a two-year, two-month period and culminated in its recommissioned status on June 18, 1954.
Aside from accommodating some vintage World War II piston types, it was now able to launch McDonnell F2H-4 Banshees, North America FJ-3 Fury’s, and North American AJ Savages, the Navy’s nuclear bomber, while air-sea rescues were facilitated by helicopters.
While it was deployed to the Mediterranean in support of the Cold War, missions for this multi-role ship were hardly restricted to atmospheric ones. It was also instrumental in the space program, serving as a recovery vessel for the Mercury and Gemini capsules.
From Aircraft Carrier to Museum
The initial value of the once proud and victorious Intrepid was literally seen as the sum of its parts—or the amount of money it could earn if reduced to sold scrap metal. But a new lease on life hovered on the horizon in the mid-1970s when the Odysseys in Flight Group was established to acquire and transform an aircraft carrier into a museum. Perhaps viewing the opportunity as a long-delayed one when denied military acceptance himself during World War II because of a leg injury, Zachary Fisher, one of its members, saw it as a purpose to be fulfilled.
His interest was summed up in five short words. “I will save the Intrepid,” he said.
With it came the secondary project of revitalizing New York’s West Side, which in the early-1980s was plighted and seedy, with the attraction his moored museum would provide.
Departing Philadelphia for the first time in eight years, it was repositioned to New Jersey’s Hoboken Bethlehem Shipyard for its almost $22 million restoration and transformation into a public project and then, with 1,300 Navy personnel, former Intrepid crew members, donors, and supporters on board, sailed into its new Pier 86 home on June 13, 1982.
Officially opening as the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum two months later, on August 4, it was intended as “an educational and cultural nonprofit institution created on the aircraft carrier Intrepid—a National Historic Landmark (since 1986). The mission of the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is to promote the awareness and understanding of history, science, and service through its collections, exhibitions, and programming in order to honor its heroes, educate the public, and inspire youth.”
Today, it offers the opportunity to inspect numerous historic aircraft on its flight, gallery, hangar, and third decks.
Fixed-wing airplanes include famous designs from Grumman, such as the E-1 Tracer, the S-2 Tracker, the TF-1 Trader, the F9F-8 Cougar, the F9F-5 Panther, and the F11F Tiger; from North American like the FJ-3 Fury and the F-86 Sabre; and from Vought, such as the F-8 Crusader. Rotary-wing types include the UH-1 Iroquois and AH-1J Sea Cobra from Bell and the HH-52 Sea Guardian from Sikorsky.
Speed and Space
Perhaps not necessarily synonymous with an aircraft carrier are three unique designs that attained supersonic speed and straddled space.
The Lockheed A-12, constructed of titanium, featured a delta, fuselage-blended wing with razor-sharp leading edges and a lift-augmenting chine—or slender, upward-curving leading edge extension that ran from the nose along the fuselage sides to either wing.
“The Lockheed A-12,” according to Tom D. Crouch in his book, Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age (W. W. Norton and Company, 2003, p. 582), “a Mach 3 replacement for the U-2, was coated with radar-absorbing materials, featured structures that ‘trapped’ radar signals, and burned a fuel designed to reduce infrared visibility.”
Operating at velocities higher than rifle bullets and able to outrun missiles, it was powered by two 34,000 thrust-pound, afterburner-equipped, Mach 3 sustainable Pratt and Whitney J58 turbojets burning low volatility JP-7 fuel at an 8,000-gph rate and emitting 3,400-degree exhaust gas temperatures.
Visible from the ship’s fantail, on Pier 86, is another supreme speed representation, an Aerospatiale-British Aerospace Concorde, registered G-BOAD and sporting serial number 100-010, in British Airways livery.
First flying on August 26, 1976, it earned the world’s speed record for airlines 20 years later, on February 7, when it flew from New York to London in two hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds, and it remained in service with that carrier until it was retired in November of 2003.
Finally, the Space Shuttle OV-101 Enterprise test vehicle blended airplane and rocket technology. While it evokes the image of the ultimate speed its non-atmospheric successors offered, it was itself an engineless aircraft that can be considered the world’s largest glider.
Intended to test the aerodynamic capabilities of its full-production versions during the approach and landing phases of flight, it was first rolled out at Rockwell’s Air Force Plant 42, Site 1, assembly facility in Palmdale, California, on September 17, 1976. Mated to a modified Boeing 747 designated the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), it was first used to determine ground handling, structural loads, and control at speeds up to those of actual rotation.
A visit to the Intrepid offers an opportunity to sample a technological sea, sky, and space merge that was instrumental in victory during its operational period.