Vultures hover over HMS Illustrious

The Royal Navy’s sole remaining aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious is due to be withdrawn from service in 2014 after 32 action-packed years, but her future may be somewhat less glorious. While for the time being Illustrious is still conspicuously active, by the end of the year she could be headed for a new career as a conference centre, hotel, tourist attraction or even promotional yacht.


Illustrious was undergoing fitting out when the Falkands War broke out, and it was rushed through so quickly she was commissioned at sea. Though she didn't reach the island until combat was over, she had a role hosting the Fleet Air Arm while the Port Stanley runway was repaired, and eventually relieved HMS Invincible. She has also played a role in Bosnia, patrolled the Persian Gulf, has taken part in peace operations in Sierra Leone and helped evacuate British citizens during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon crisis.

Far from slipping quietly into retirement, HMS Illustrious is still very much in service. With a crew of 650, after deployment in the Gulf as part of the COUGAR 13 exercise task group, she was diverted to support relief efforts for 40,000 people in outlying islands following the typhoon in the Philippines and provide as a base for helicopters. She returned to Portsmouth only last week, where the crew are enjoying a delayed Christmas celebration.

After a period of maintenance, Illustrious will deploy again. After that, what next for Illustrious? In September 2012, the Ministry of Defence announced that once she is decommissioned, she will be 'preserved for the nation'.

Tourist attraction or Commonwealth yacht?

Her home dockyard of Portsmouth has staked a claim, with a group of businesses submitting a proposal that she could host a heritage museum, art spaces, galleries, restaurants and a hotel. A rival bid from Hull, which will become the UK's next City Of Culture in 2017, also suggests a multi-use venue, including a conference centre and an education and training facility, in addition to a maritime tourist attraction. Bids from Newcastle and China are also expected.

But naval architect BMT Nigel Gee (BMT) and Sigmund Yacht Design have submitted a rather more radical design concept that could see Illustrious reborn as a 'Commonwealth Yacht'. Illustrious could continue to travel the world, but this time 'promoting trade, attending international events and undertaking humanitarian and disaster relief work around the globe'.

While this sounds like a rather hard-working retirement for Illustrious, leisure is still on the minds of the designers. Concept illustrations show swimming pools and sunbeds jostling for deck space with VTOL light aircraft and helicopters.

Sigmund Yacht Design owner Peter Symonds says: "Our design is a brave interpretation of such a distinguished vessel, stating boldly its new purpose, whilst paying respect to its impressive heritage."

Whether these plans fulfil the MOD's remit of HMS Illustrious being 'preserved for the nation' remains to be seen.

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