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A Sea Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Right from the start, it was a marriage of like minds: a true-blue Navy town and the Navy’s newest, biggest and most fearsome warship.

Thousands of San Diegans lined the shore that morning 37 years ago to watch the mammoth aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk steam slowly and majestically into San Diego Bay to take up residency.

Classes were canceled so students could witness the long-anticipated event. Dozens of pleasure craft trailed the 1,065-foot-long ship as it rounded Ballast Point and entered the bay, which had been newly dredged to accommodate the vessel’s deep draft. Fireboats sprayed arcs of water into the air amid a cacophony of sirens, whistles and horns.

The mayor and other dignitaries were at the dock to offer greetings. The morning and evening newspapers splashed the ship’s arrival on the front page and quickly dubbed the ship “the queen of the seas.” About 35,000 people visited the vessel for a weekend open house.

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Now it is nearly four decades later, and on Monday morning the Kitty Hawk will leave San Diego for the open seas. She has done it innumerable times, including on 18 occasions when she was sent on extended deployments into harm’s way.

But this time, the ship is not scheduled to return to San Diego. After having North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado as its home port since 1961, the Kitty Hawk is being sent to the U.S. base at Yokosuka, Japan, to replace the carrier Independence, which is being retired.

The mayor and other dignitaries will be on the dock to say goodbye. TV news copters will hover overhead. And by noontime, the remarkable ties between the city and the ship--which became as much a landmark of the San Diego area as the Hotel del Coronado or the San Diego Zoo--will be just a memory.

In a few weeks the nuclear-powered John C. Stennis will arrive in San Diego to succeed the Kitty Hawk as a San Diego-based carrier (and join the carrier Constellation). Whether the Stennis will ever replace the Kitty Hawk in the hearts of many San Diegans is another matter.

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“Losing Kitty Hawk is tough,” said Howard Ruggles, an official with the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. “In San Diego, Kitty Hawk is family.”

“Some ships just seem to get the spotlight more than others,” said Edwin McKellar, a retired Navy pilot and now executive director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum. “Kitty Hawk has glowed very brightly for all of her years.”

McKellar’s description is both figurative and literal.

In the 1960s and 1970s, San Diego was known for two nighttime beacons: the neon champagne glass and bubbles atop the now-defunct El Cortez Hotel, and the lighted number 63 on the Kitty Hawk’s superstructure.

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Bonds forged during times of adversity are often the strongest, and so it was between San Diego and the ship. It bears remembering just how hot the Cold War was in 1961 and how important the Kitty Hawk’s role was in maintaining American military superiority.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was talking tough and testing the mettle of the young American president, John F. Kennedy. In the eight weeks between the Kitty Hawk’s commissioning at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and its arrival in San Diego, the Soviet Union had resumed nuclear testing and detonated 28 nuclear devices.

The largest of the blasts, equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT, came the day before the Kitty Hawk reached San Diego. There have been suggestions through the years that the timing of the Soviet tests was not accidental.

The Soviets were known to be obsessed with the Kitty Hawk, the first of a new generation of U.S. “supercarriers” equipped with surface-to-air missiles and capable of launching and retrieving warplanes at a much quicker, more continuous pace than older carriers.

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Soviet ships shadowed the Kitty Hawk as it made the long voyage from the East Coast around Cape Horn and up the western coast of South America and Central America. Kennedy was said to be delighted that the Soviets appeared spooked by the big ship and its military prowess.

Just three weeks after the Kitty Hawk arrived in San Diego, Kennedy came to watch Navy and Marine Corps maneuvers off the coast at Camp Pendleton. He spent 18 hours aboard the Kitty Hawk and used the occasion to give a tough Cold War-style speech.

In the process, the Kitty Hawk earned a reputation that would last through six tours during the Vietnam War and later tours in support of U.S. objectives in other international hot spots: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia and elsewhere.

“With some ships, there’s just something in the metal,” said Rear Adm. William W. “Bear” Pickavance Jr., former Kitty Hawk skipper and now a carrier group commander. “For aviators, Kitty Hawk always had a reputation as an operator, always in the thick of it.”

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With the retirement of the Independence, the Kitty Hawk becomes the oldest of the nation’s 12 aircraft carriers. A three-year, $750-million renovation completed in 1991 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard--which involved the Kitty Hawk’s longest absence from San Diego--extended the 86,000-ton ship’s normal 30-year life span by 15 years.

The Navy has made numerous improvements in its newer carriers, but in terms of getting airplanes aloft quickly and bringing them back safely, the Kitty Hawk is still seen as the equal of any, known in Navy jargon as “having a full bag.”

“Kitty Hawk is the workhorse of West Coast [naval] aviation,” said Jim DiMatteo, a San Diego restaurant owner and former F-18 pilot who serves as a part-time instructor for younger pilots. “She may not be as glamorous or have as big a deck as the newer carriers, but she always gets the job done.”

Or as Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego), a decorated Navy pilot from the Vietnam War, puts it, “Kitty Hawk is one fine lady.”

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To many, the ship was a symbol of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Kitty Hawk aviators flew 10,000 missions in the war, including some of the first strikes at North Vietnam. In 1972, folk singer Joan Baez led an antiwar protest in San Diego as the Kitty Hawk deployed.

In 1982 the ship plucked 115 Vietnamese refugees from leaky boats floundering in the South China Sea.

The same period also saw the carrier hit by scandal: There was a race riot on board in 1972 and periodic reports of drug use until the Navy began random service-wide drug testing in 1982.

In 1984, the Kitty Hawk collided with a Soviet submarine in the Sea of Japan, leaving the sub crippled. An oversized metal tooth from the sub’s propeller blade hangs in a place of honor in the captain’s quarters aboard the Kitty Hawk. In 1994, the ship had a confrontation with a Chinese submarine in the Yellow Sea and dispatched anti-submarine airplanes for tracking purposes before the sub backed off.

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Through good times and bad, the Kitty Hawk and San Diego were synonymous. Her leave-takings and returns were always news. The headline “The Hawk Is Home” needed no explanation.

When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited San Diego in 1993, she had but one request: to visit the Kitty Hawk. The Disney movie “Lt. Robinson Crusoe, USN” was filmed aboard the ship, and a country and western concert was held on her flight deck, featuring Clint Black, who sang the ship’s theme song, “Proud to Be an American.”

For many a Kitty Hawk crew member, the first stop upon returning to North Island was the Mexican Village restaurant, just a few blocks from the main gate. So popular was the Mexican Village that a trip to the restaurant became known as a Mex Pac, a takeoff on West Pac, which is a Navy abbreviation for a deployment to the Western Pacific.

“The Kitty Hawk sailors adopted us, and we loved it,” said restaurant owner Sharon Considine. “We made sure to keep their favorite things in store: Mexican pizzas and margaritas.”

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Considine even had her business license changed to “Mex Pac doing business as Mexican Village.” And, yes, the walls are smothered with pictures of crew members and aviators from the Kitty Hawk and other carriers.

Truth be told, San Diego’s attachment to the ship has always been part patriotism, part commerce.

An aircraft carrier and its 3,000 crew members are an awesome economic boost. When the Kitty Hawk left for Philadelphia for renovation in 1987, local officials complained bitterly that the community would suffer a $70-million-a-year hit and begged the secretary of the Navy to send a replacement carrier immediately.

In 1961 the San Diego Evening Tribune, two days after the Kitty Hawk’s triumphant arrival, noted gleefully in an editorial that the ship’s crew was going to need 1,308 loaves of bread a day, along with 10,150 pounds of vegetables, 1,080 pounds of dairy products, 4,970 pounds of meat, 4,320 pounds of potatoes and 12,950 pounds of dry provisions--all to be purchased locally.

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One San Diego shopping center was ready with a half-page ad showing the Kitty Hawk and the caption: “Think big. Southern California’s biggest shopping center welcomes the world’s biggest carrier.”

Since the Japanese government will not allow nuclear-powered ships in its harbors, the Kitty Hawk, one of only three nonnuclear carriers left in the U.S. Navy, was a natural to relieve the Independence.

Once in Yokosuka, the Kitty Hawk will be the only U.S. carrier to have a foreign base as its home port. Preparations for moving thousands of Kitty Hawk family members and their possessions to Japan have been underway for months.

“It’s going to be a very bittersweet day to watch her leave,” Rear Adm. Pickavance said. “Kitty Hawk and San Diego just seem to go together.”

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