ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION — The crew talks about "Connie" and her impending departure as if discussing a lovingly restored car or a fondly remembered girlfriend.
A 41-year-old relic of the dinosaur age when nearly all U.S. warships were propelled by fossil fuel, this aircraft carrier is in the Persian Gulf preparing for one last blaze of glory before heading into mothballs after its 21st and final deployment.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Warships -- A Feb. 9 article and headline in Section A on the impending retirement of the aircraft carrier Constellation inaccurately implied that most U.S. warships are no longer powered by fossil fuel. The story said the ship was a "relic of the dinosaur age when nearly all U.S. warships were propelled by fossil fuel," and the headline said that the aircraft carrier is one of the Navy's "last nonnuclear warships." Although most aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered, other surface ships such as frigates, cruisers and destroyers are still powered by fossil fuel.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Warships -- A Feb. 9 article in Section A on the impending retirement of the aircraft carrier Constellation inaccurately implied that most U.S. warships are no longer powered by fossil fuel. The story said the ship was a "relic of the dinosaur age when nearly all U.S. warships were propelled by fossil fuel." Although most aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered, other surface ships such as frigates, cruisers and destroyers are still powered by fossil fuel.
The Constellation's looming retirement is mixing a bit of melancholy into the emotional cocktail affecting the more than 5,000 crew members as they confront the fears, hopes and sacrifices of possible combat against Iraq.
"You get bummed about a ship going out of service, even if her age is starting to show," said Ensign Bryan Forshey, a West Virginian recently commissioned as an engineering officer after 15 years of enlisted duty.
It is in Forshey's below-decks honeycomb of boilers, gauges, generators and ballast controls that nearly 700 members of the crew wage a daily struggle to keep the ship moving, the jet-launching catapults steaming and the water hot for showers and coffee.
"We're being replaced by the USS Ronald Reagan, which I guess is right since he was the president who named us 'America's flagship,' " Forshey said of the 1981 presidential visit that bestowed the ship's enduring motto. "The bottom line is that it's been decided the Navy only needs 12 carriers. It's time for one to go, and this old girl deserves to go to bed."
The Constellation is the second-oldest ship in the Navy and one of only three conventionally powered carriers in service. It will be retired Aug. 7 to make way for the Reagan, the latest nuclear-powered Nimitz-class behemoth emerging to meet the changing demands of post-Cold War defense planning.
Some aboard the Connie, especially flight crews accustomed to the superior comforts of more modern carriers, complain of cramped quarters that are subject to erratic temperature changes and a dodgy electrical system. Though essential functions are unfettered, the creeping arthritis of aging technology is apparent.
"There are some guys on board who actually remember when this worked," Lt. j.g. Andrew Hildebrand joked as he descended an idle 1960s-era escalator that once carried crew members up seven of the ship's 18 levels. For years it has served as a stationary stairway.
But the gleaming copper pipes and brass fixtures flanking the passageways and the incessantly swabbed decks testify to the care that keeps the ship, in the minds of most of its sailors, not just habitable but home.
"This ship has an amazing history, and we all feel a little nostalgic about the decommissioning. My father served on this ship, flying helos [helicopters] in the early 1970s," said Cmdr. Mike Daly, head of the Combat Direction Center, the central nervous system of computers, communications equipment and intelligence archives.
The Constellation transfer this year to the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash., is mandated by decisions made decades ago. With the Reagan coming on line in May, the Navy will exceed the complement of 12 carriers deemed appropriate for defense needs, as well as the number for which crew and maintenance funding has been secured.
Modernity has left the Constellation behind for another important change: the transformation of the fleet from all-male crews to those of both sexes. Despite two major overhauls since the decision to send women to sea in the late 1970s, the carrier has been able to retrofit sleeping and bathing facilities for fewer than 40 female sailors.
"It's a berthing issue. We just never got reconfigured to have more women on board," said Lt. Wendy Snyder, the ship's public affairs officer. "It's a shame because there really isn't any other obstacle to women performing a bigger role here."
That inability to go with the flow of a changing service was a key factor in the decision to retire the ship ahead of the Navy's oldest vessel, the Kitty Hawk, which was commissioned six months before the Constellation.
Capt. John W. Miller, the Constellation's 30th commanding officer and a veteran F-14 Tomcat pilot, was born in the same year the carrier's keel was laid -- 1957 -- and was a schoolboy during its early exploits as the first warship to wage airstrikes against North Vietnam. Commissioned in 1961, the carrier made seven combat cruises to the South China Sea and, in 1972, served as a platform for naval fighter aces.
"We are every bit as capable as the nuclear-powered carriers," Miller, a Los Angeles native, said of the ship he will sail back to its home port in San Diego this spring, assuming that whatever action there might be against Iraq is completed by then.