F-14 Flyer Looks Back At What Made The Soon To Be Scrapped USS Kitty Hawk Special

An officer who called the Kitty Hawk home gives her a fond farewell and reminisces about what really made her unique.

byJoe “Smokin” Ruzicka| PUBLISHED Jan 28, 2022 4:41 PM
F-14 Flyer Looks Back At What Made The Soon To Be Scrapped USS Kitty Hawk Special
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It’s not often you see an aircraft carrier being towed to its final resting place. Frankly, the sight is a bit ghostly. For the faithful few who served aboard her, it’s hard to watch. The giant ship, at one time the most powerful in the fleet, unable to move on its own, its grey rusting hull now at the mercy of a simple tug, slowly pulling her through the fog-enveloped waters of Puget Sound. The observer watches an empty and lifeless flattop float by, which only adds to the eeriness. The scene is a far cry from the once constant beehive of activity found on the 80,000 tons of American diplomacy that I experienced as an F-14 Radar Intercept Officer deployed aboard her. Over the carrier's half-century-long career, 5,000 sailors at any one time, from the captain to the most junior of crew, all called her home and brought the ship to life in faraway places like Yankee Station, the Persian Gulf, and the frigid waters off the coast of North Korea. 

Despair may not be the right word because we all knew this moment was coming, but it certainly is a depressing feeling to see a ship that was once so proud, heading on its way to the scrap yard. 

You can read all about the ex-USS Kitty Hawk's final voyage to meet the scrapper's torch in this past War Zone article.

The ex-USS Kitty Hawk as she stopped in Long Beach on her final voyage to be scrapped in Texas., Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG

The USS Kitty Hawk, ‘CV’ 63 (note the absence of the N for 'nuclear') was commissioned on  April 29. 1961, and was the last of the conventional (oil-fired) aircraft carriers in service. In contrast to a nuclear-powered carrier, the whole ship smelled like JP-5 jet fuel, not just the hangar deck. And because it seemed like the water tanks had a crossfeed directly with the fuel tanks, many of us probably drank the equivalent of a Chevy Camaro’s gas tank full of JP-5 laced water by the time our tour was up.

My first sight of the Kitty Hawk — also lovingly known as Battle Cat — was when it was in a port maintenance period at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. There were ship workers crawling all around her, hammering and sawing away, removing asbestos-infected parts. 

Yikes, not the best introduction! 

“Shitty Kitty,” its nickname given by those who both loved and endured her over the 48 years of service, makes you wonder how it survived that long.

USS Kitty Hawk at its birth in Yokosuka, Japan., USN

The ship’s interior layout, while similar to the newer nuclear-powered fleet, had a few whimsical differences. The first was escalators, one forward and one aft, that made the ascent from the 2nd deck ready rooms to the 0-3 level much quicker than climbing ladder wells. Unfortunately, the escalators rarely worked and even made a few attempts to kill you when too much weight would pile up on a dormant one resulting in a group of aviators rolling backward. 

Another visible difference was the layout of the island, which is the superstructure above the flight deck and essentially the command center for all flight deck operations. 

Daytime flight operations required a representative or ‘rep’ in the tower to be present during flight operations. This duty normally belonged to a junior aviator, likely a Lieutenant or Lieutenant Junior Grade. One of the unfortunate differences from a junior officer’s perspective was the tower’s interior layout and in particular the Air Boss’s proximity to the rep.

Contrary to a spacious nuclear carrier’s tower, on the Kitty Hawk, the reps were positioned directly behind where the Boss would stand at his window with only a three-foot corridor of space to move, and more importantly, nowhere to hide.  A typical conversation with the Boss ended up with him turning directly around into the reps’ personal space and asking rhetorical questions like: 

“Why the hell does 102 want to depart and re-enter?” with the Boss's nose about eight inches from yours.

“I don’t know sir, I’m not in the jet.”

“Well dammit! He’s screwing up my air space!”

U.S. Navy Cmdr. Craig Kauber serving as Airboss aboard USS Kitty Hawk., USN

Like most ships that stay in the fleet for an extended period of time, the Kitty Hawk saw a few notable changes to its mission and modifications throughout its service life. One was its re-designation from CVA (attack carrier) to CV (multi-mission carrier) back in 1973. This entailed enlarging the ship’s jet blast deflectors (JBD) so the Kitty Hawk could launch and recover the Navy’s new F-14 Tomcat

According to the Kitty Hawk Veterans Association webpage, this modification also included moving aircraft elevator no. 1 outboard by a few feet, making it raise and lower at a slight angle. Tomcat bubbas will note that the F-14 was never shot off CAT IV (catapult four) located at the edge of the port side of the ship. If memory serves correct, the CAT IV JBD was much smaller than the other three JBD’s and thus you could burn up some aircraft positioned on Elevator 4 or even those lying Landing Signal Officers on their platform nearby with the widely spaced nozzles of the ‘Big Fighter.’ Plus, the Tomcat’s wingspan made it almost impossible to have a clear shot off CAT IV with all of the port side antennas and other equipment being a hazard for a launch.

An F-14A launching off the Kitty Hawk's #3 catapult with a Hornet on #4. , USN

Another notable difference on the flight deck was the absence of a shooter bubble. On a nuclear aircraft carrier, much of the time the shooters (those responsible for launching the aircraft) use the Integrated Catapult Control Station (ICCS), also known as the 'bubble' to launch aircraft. On the Kitty Hawk, there was no ICCS, so shooters were always on the flight deck instead of inside the comfort and safety of the bubble. 

The 'Shooter's Bubble' Integrated Catapult Control Station as seen aboard Nimitz class supercarriers. The Kitty Hawk lacked this feature., USN

While the flying differences were mostly subtle between a conventional and nuclear aircraft carrier, one of my former F-14 Tomcat squadron pilots, Drano Malandrino, remembers the Kitty Hawk as being much more difficult to land on than a nuclear carrier because of less margin for error. 

The Kitty Hawk was slightly smaller and displaced less than a fully loaded nuke — 80,000 tons versus 90,000 tons. This means it felt like the deck moved around more than average, including the infamous ‘dutch roll.’ 

A few other differences contributed to the difficulty which included a lower hook to ramp distance, a slightly smaller landing area, and most significantly, a more pronounced burble. 

For those unfamiliar, the burble is a pocket of disturbed air created by and encountered behind the carrier’s island. The challenge is twofold: the burble happens at relatively close proximity to the ship so the pilot has very little time to make a meaningful correction (what I will call the “yikes” factor) and it tricks the pilot by causing a ballooning sensation to the aircraft’s glideslope angle followed by a sudden descent. Landing through the burble is probably more art than science and takes some getting used to, particularly when you factor in all of the Kitty Hawk’s other subtle differences. 

F-14 landing aboard the Kitty Hawk., USN

During my time on the Kitty Hawk (1999-2002), she was forward deployed to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. The Air Wing (CVW-5) consisted of the following squadrons: VF-154 Black Knights (F-14 Tomcat), VFA-195 Dambusters (F/A-18C Hornet), VFA-192 World Famous Golden Dragons (F/A-18C Hornet), VFA-27 Royal Maces (F/A-18C Hornet), VS-21 Red Tails (S-3 Viking), VAQ-136 Gauntlets (EA-6B Prowler), VAW-115 Liberty Bells (E-2C Hawkeye), HS-14 Chargers (SH-60F Seahawk) and VRC-30 Det 5 Providers (C-2A Greyhound). 

Unlike today’s CVW-5 structure with the fixed-wing assets now at MCAS Iwakuni, the air wing at that time was all located together at Naval Air Facility Astugi, about 25 miles inland from the port facility. This proximity to the carrier made it easy for air wing personnel to get down to the ship, albeit driving on Japanese roads for a new American sailor was a bit of a hazard.    

F-14A flies by Mount Fuji. , USN

The operational tempo of a forward-deployed carrier is much different than one which is stateside. There is no work-up period for training nor is there any type of down period. The ship and air wing just go. And when I say ‘go,’ I mean they just literally get underway and start operations. There may be a quick CQ qualification period for the air wing, but that typically only lasts a few days. Additionally, every pilot that is sent to the forward-deployed force is a PRI A — meaning at the top of their class in their ability to land aboard the ship. There were no weak players in CVW-5 when it came to being able to get aboard and no beach diverts because someone was having trouble getting aboard.

The great part about being a ‘fully enclosed carrier group’ is the air wing, ship’s crew, and all other combined ships and staffs know each other so well that it is fairly easy to pick up a full range of operations with very little work-up time. After CQ, the ship points in whatever direction it’s going and begins full cyclic operations to the tune of 10-11 events, launching and recovering an amount of aircraft that would seem untenable in the first few days for a brand new air wing on a different ship.

CVW-5 flyover of the Kitty Hawk in 2008 just before her retirement. , USN

During the late fall and early winter months, the carrier and Air Wing normally participated in Operation Foal Eagle with Republic of Korea Forces. Operations during this time of year are always affected by the weather in the Sea of Japan. I remember several times when there would be a high sea state and winds over the deck in excess of 40 knots. This makes it very difficult to launch and recover aircraft, as you can imagine. Additionally, Hornets had to go half flaps (a very non-standard configuration) and the ship had to adjust arresting gear settings. However, CVW-5 and the Kitty Hawk were used to tough weather off the coast of North Korea, making an abnormal situation normal. 

We completed several WESTPACs during my three years there. Ports of call would regularly include Guam, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and every sailor’s favorite: Pattaya Beach in Thailand. One of the advantages of being a conventional aircraft carrier meant that foreign governments had less aversion to bringing the Kitty Hawk into port than a nuclear carrier. This meant that the carrier could pull directly into Sydney Harbor pier side. 

It’s a pretty cool sight to float by the Sydney Opera House and see the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the distance. The city of Sydney is a fantastic place to visit and the residents (for the most part) were as excited to see us and the ship as we were to see their city.

USS Kitty Hawk pulling into Sydney in 2005. , USN

One thing unique to having an air wing permanently deployed on the same ship was what I would call the ‘homesteading’ factor. In most cases, the aircraft carrier has complete control of its spaces and loans them out on a temporary basis to the incoming air wing. But on the Kitty Hawk, where the air wing was permanently attached, this homesteading concept meant that we as air wing personnel constantly kept our spaces and personal effects on board.

One example of this was how my squadron (VF-154) would name and formulate who had priority on all of our staterooms. We knew already what spaces we owned and they didn’t change. When it came time to pick berthing, a system called Otis points (Otis The Knight was our mascot) was used. 

VF-154's (now VFA-154) insignia featuring Otis the knight., USN

The senior JO (junior officer) would keep a large spreadsheet that included a formula of rank, time in Japan, and sea time. Many times a newly minted department head would come into the squadron and not have as many total Otis points as a senior JO, because that JO could be on their third-year forward-deployed had accumulated more Otis points due to our formula (and to be frank, they had endured more pain and earned that ranking). It resulted in department heads who would be higher in officer rank, but have a lower slot to pick. Some would get angry when they found this out and throw a hissy fit — but that’s the department head way.

The two-man stateroom ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ was aptly named because it shared a wall with the forward galley scullery, meaning it was loud and hot from the constant dishwashing going on all day and night. The ‘6 man’ was a prized stateroom because of its size and location on the 0-3 level near the ‘blue tile’ (the admiral's passage). Plus, several senior JOs would formulate a pack and band together to keep the total count of occupants at only four, leaving more space in an otherwise spacious room.

The ‘Bowling Alley’ was a stateroom located on the port side just at the end of the CAT III and IV stroke, right at the water break. If you were ever in that room during a launch when a jet was coming down the stroke, it sounded like a bowling ball rolling on a hard wooden floor and then crashing into a set of 10 pins. It was loud.

A Tomcat roars off the #3 catapult aboard the Kitty Hawk., USN

The three-man named ‘Thunderdome’ was a prized stateroom of senior JOs. It was located near Ready Room 1 and a head (bathroom), with a reasonable amount of space, and was reasonably well vented. The only issue was when the adjacent ordnance elevator would make a 2 AM run and shake everyone completely out of bed. Thus the name Thunderdome. We even had the name painted on top of the door! 

Since the Kitty Hawk was the oldest ship in the fleet during my time on board, it flew a special flag during mooring or anchoring called the First Navy Jack or more commonly known as the ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flag. This distinction allowed her to display the First Navy Jack in place of the Union Jack, which is the flag flown aboard all other Navy ships. 

The flag unfurled in the Kitty Hawk's hangar bay. , USN

Conceived in 1775 by Commodore Esek Hopkins of the Continental Navy, the flag was first used as a signal among ships to engage the enemy. Kitty Hawk received the First Navy Jack back in 1998 and obviously kept it through the rest of its lifespan until decommissioning. 

USN

Living and working on the oldest ship in the fleet came with fewer creature comforts than a newer nuclear ship. One of those was the absence of water. On a nuclear aircraft carrier, freshwater seems like it is everywhere. There are water fountains in the passageways, a ship’s self-service laundry for the crew to use, and gasp, ‘Hollywood showers.’ 

Hollywood showers are showers where you have free-flowing water from a normal showerhead. In contrast, the Kitty Hawk had handheld spray nozzles you had to depress to get water to come out. There was no water fountain, only smelly JP-5 water from the wardroom, and a self-serve ship’s laundry was inconceivable. I vividly remember the ship securing water on WOG Day — the one day you needed to take a shower!

There were a few other things that were different at a nuanced level, but were probably a hold-over from the Kitty Hawk just being an old ship. The Kitty Hawk still dealt in physical cash money or personal checks for all transactions, including at the ship’s store and vending machines. Aircraft carriers today use the equivalent of a debit card for the crew to make purchases or money transactions rather than having to run down to disbursing to get DK1 (a disbursement clerk) to cash your check. 

The other thing that stands out in my memory as a difference from other carriers was the lack of electronics on certain systems. There was a channel on the ship's closed-circuit TV that showed what aircraft were currently in the night pattern around the ship. We called that channel ‘Mr. Hands’ because it was a television camera pointing down at someone’s physical hand in Air Ops moving pucks on a board to represent the aircraft in the pattern. The person usually wore a white glove, I guess because it showed up better on camera and it kept their hand anonymous. 

Additionally, sailors in the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) learned to write backward using grease pencils to track launches, recoveries, and event changes on these huge glass event boards. They wrote backward because they stood behind the board so the camera and everyone watching had an unobstructed view of the event board. Event boards are now digital representations displayed on a television and CATCC on nuclear carriers is located on the 0-3 level near the middle of the ship. On the Kitty Hawk, CATCC was down one level (0-2 deck) and slightly forward, which seemed to me like it was down in a hole because it was always dark and cold, but that's just maybe how I remember it. 

CATCC with its grease pencil illuminated event boards. , USN

Now to be clear, some of the nuclear carriers may have had these traits in their earlier years but as the Kitty Hawk made its way closer to retirement, it seemed to me it got left behind in terms of upgrades compared to other ships.  

During my first underway period as a brand new Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) on board the Kitty Hawk, my pilot and I were about to man up for a fly-off back to the beach. He was already headed to the jet and I stopped by Pri-Fly (Primary Flight Control) to drop off our weight chit. Note: Each time you launch, the catapult tension is set by the weight for your aircraft and they use your weight chit to keep a record of the settings. Another pilot, the CAG Operations Officer, was in Pri-Fly about to walk to his jet for launch, as well. He asked me if we could do a profile flight for the ship’s Combat Direction Center (CDC) as they needed a fast flyer depicting an anti-ship ballistic missile. Since he was in a Legacy Hornet, he didn’t feel he could give the ship their desired profile. The profile was simple enough—climb to 25,000 feet and do a rapid descent to 2,500 feet and then over-flying the ship at greater than the speed of sound. 

A Tomcat about to be launched off the USS Kitty Hawk., USN

We launched and headed to our predetermined radial and distance and then contacted the ship to begin our profile. We specifically asked the controller, “Confirm you want us to fly overhead the ship at 1.0 Mach or greater.” He responded with “yes”— so we did as requested. A simple kick-in of the afterburners, a direct turn to the ship, followed by bunting the nose over to get to the requested altitude. 

We continued to call out our distance, speed, and altitude to the ship as we got closer. I think we crossed overhead the ship at 2,500 feet at about 1.2 IMN (indicated Mach number). We pulled up to 10,000 feet as the sun was setting, turned right to put our home airfield on the nose, and thought we had just accomplished something beautiful.

As we landed back at our home airfield of NAF Atsugi, the Skipper asked to see us in his office. The first words out of his mouth were something like: “CAG just called me and wanted to know what the hell you guys were doing?!! You realize you boomed the whole ship!” We explained to him what had happened. How we were tasked with CAG’s operations officer and how we double-checked with our controller on the profile. 

In the end, the good news was we were not at fault and there was a breakdown in communication between the ship and their own CDC officer. But while being in the Skipper’s office wasn’t funny at the time, I have to laugh now as it was a ‘Top Gun’ moment — flying by the tower at a high rate of speed and somebody (probably a lot of somebodies) spilling their coffee.

F-14 conducting a high-speed flyby., USN

My parting thoughts on the Kitty Hawk are pretty simple. We can recall all of the good things and bad things about a particular time in our lives. And many of those happened during my three years on board that ship. I am sure many of you reading this have similar memories both good and bad. But what stands out to me are the people you served with during that time. Those who made the ship go or made you laugh or spent time with you suffering through another hot day on the flight deck. 

Those sailors are the lifeblood of this ship. Without those sailors, the Kitty Hawk is just a grey rusting hull at the mercy of a simple tug. 

Joe "Smokin" Ruzicka was a Radar Intercept Officer in the F-14 Tomcat and Weapon Systems Officer in the F/A-18 Hornet with over 2,000 flight hours in fast jets. Joe was also a part of the final F-14 demonstration aircrew, as well as being a Legislative Fellow to John McCain and worked in Washington DC on critical US Navy programs on behalf of the US Navy. His prior works are a must-read. You can find them here, here, and here. You can follow Joe on Twitter at @smokinjoe96. 

USS Kitty Hawk as the sun sets during Operation Enduring Freedom., USN

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com

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