Some cities have clippers or galleons floating in their harbours, others have battleships or decommissioned cruise ships for the public to enjoy . . .
New York has a fully fledged aircraft carrier . . .
This monster floats in the Hudson on the western shore of Manhattan. A gargantuan ship that in it's time saw conflict at the battle of Midway and transported troops to the Vietnam War. Stretching 900ft from bow to stern it is an impressive sight set against the skyscrapers of mid-town. Here you can scramble over the decks that felt the blows of kamikaze pilots, descend into the bowels of a nuclear submarine and look out of the bridge window at a view of a ship that has seen action in Korea, Okinawa and picked up space capsules from the moon landings.
I recommend at least an afternoon to see this magnificent vessel. Even if you don't like military history, the sheer scale and scope of this behemoth will win you over. There is something beautiful about the design of a battleship, and something even more special about an aircraft carrier - possibly the most powerful weapon of war in the world. Kids will absolutely love it, it has an abundance of planes, submarines and gun emplacements for them to play with and adults will find the way of life aboard these huge vessels fascinating. The story and experiences of the 'Intrepid' are the stuff that modern legends are made of . . .
It does take a little ingenuity to get there. It is moored in the West Hudson on 12th Avenue with views towards New Jersey. It lies between W44th Street and W46th Street and the easiest way would be to walk through 'Hell's Kitchen'. This notorious area looked fine as I took the bus through it in daytime, but I'm not sure it is advisable in the evening? From Grand Central or Times Square the best way to reach it is a bus down 42nd Street. The nearest subway stop is Port Authority/42nd Street but this is still a walk of six blocks which can be wearing on the feet. The bus costs only £1.50 and heads west along 42nd Street and changes at 12th Avenue where you can get off for the Circle Line ferries and USS 'Intrepid'.
Before the entrance to the aircraft carrier are the remains of an old pier whose stumps poke nervously from the water. Then you walk past the prow of the 'Intrepid' which towers 50ft above you and was tied with a huge yellow ribbon when I was there (the Iraqi war still had two weeks to go). Entrance costs $14 and is open from 9am to 6pm, and you bags and belongings will undergo a very tight security check. Then you climb the steps and enter the vast interior hangar. This 800ft long metallic cavern was where the bombers and jets were housed before being hydraulically raised to the runway above. On show were pieces of the airplane that slammed into the Twin Towers back in 2001 and numerous fighter aircraft including one flown by George Bush senior in the Second World War. There were also enormous space capsules from the moon landings that the 'Intrepid' used to pick up from the Pacific in the late sixties. And there is a superb exhibition called 'The Forgotten War' about Korea in 1950-1953.
But it was the self-explanatory video that really caught my attention. This showed the story of the 'Intrepid' and after watching this I developed some real affection for the old girl. She was first commissioned in the thirties and saw action in the Pacific at Okinawa and Midway. Her nadir came when she was fighting off Japan and attacks by 'kamikaze' pilots severely damaged the bridge and runway. She came home in WWII but was used in Korea and Vietnam. In 1976 she was due to be de-commissioned but instead of being sold for scrap she was purchased by multi-billionaire Zachary Fisher and turned into a museum. She has been opened to the public since 1982 and her hangar has seen numerous high-status dinners including with speakers Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Maggie Thatcher.
But best of all is topside. Set against the skyscrapers of New York the entire flight deck stretches for about 700ft (see photo). On it's starboard was a huge bridge tower with a warning about 'exhaust burns' emblazoned on it's side. Lining the deck were warplanes from around the world - Russian MIG's, American bombers, French fighters and RAF Scimitars. There were BELL helicopters that I remember from M.A.S.H. and a very sinister black shape at the end which was the famous 'Stealth' bomber. A bomber so fast it can slip under a country’s radar. To reach the bridge you must climb a number of ladders, a wide window provided good views across the runway and there were 'Intrepid' veterans there to answer any questions. I was surprised to see how little electronics there was on the bridge, the controls seem to consist of brass instruments and black buttons.
'Intrepid' is not alone on the Hudson. Sharing it's pier are other navy vessels. USS 'Growler' (fabulous name!) was a nuclear submarine that could be visited on a guided tour but I settled on a nearby battle cruiser USS 'Edison' which was dwarfed next to the mighty 'Intrepid'. You could stroll the decks, visit the angled prow and play with the Bofors gun on its emplacement. The narrow passageways and crew quarters were more interesting with a large commissary with over twelve different types of ice cream . . .
All in all, 'Intrepid' and its sisters won me over with their sheer sense of scale. There is something undeniably beautiful about an aircraft carrier. The video shots of her ploughing through blue Pacific waters on the way to battle were exhilarating. It's easy to understand why the old girl commands such affection.