It is a little after dawn in the Moray Firth, 30 miles north of Lossiemouth. In Flyco — air traffic control — high above the deck of HMS Ark Royal, six officers have their eyes fixed on the horizon, and there is an almost tangible sense of expectation.
Suddenly a voice rings out: “Here he comes.” A Harrier GR9 jets across the slate-grey sea from the port side. The aircraft powers low towards a target that is being dragged along behind the aircraft carrier, like some giant, deranged water skier.
Just as it reaches its goal, the Harrier drops its dummy bomb, which smashes into the water, just short.
A groan goes up in Flyco. “Rubbish,” says one.
“I knew they couldn’t hit two in a row,” says another.
The third: “They peaked too soon.”
It proves to be a rare miss and, to cheers, the next aircraft scores the second direct hit of the morning.
Here on the famous Ark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, a crew of 770 are readying for the multinational Auriga deployment off North America this summer.
After more than a year’s preparation, and the recent delivery of six Harriers from the Naval Strike Wing, the excitement is intense. But the brutal fact is that the next 18 months are likely to represent the last great adventures for the ship.
Launched in 1985, Ark Royal was designed to carry six Harrier jets. Once the cutting edge of naval and aviation science, a generation later both ship and planes are part of a familiar modern problem: like video recorders and in-car cassette players, they are technologically obsolete.
Though she will work again as a helicopter carrier for a couple of summers, Ark Royal is likely to be decommissioned by 2015.
In the 21st century, it seems aircraft carriers are all a matter of scale. When HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new vessels, is launched from Rosyth in 2014, she will be twice the size of the Ark and carry six times as many jets, American-built Joint Strike Fighters. The second ship, Prince of Wales, will launch in 2018, with the same capacity.
If these modern carriers are a boon to the Navy, great old names are another thing altogether. Hanging heavy in the air in the Ark Royal’s ward room and its messes is the absolute belief that its badge should live on, whatever happens to the old ship.
Off the record, it seems every officer and crewman or woman is keen to let you know that Prince of Wales should have its name changed to Ark Royal.
True, such a move might be problematic; the sensitive matter of naming is dealt with by a sub-committee of the Ministry of Defence. But it is whispered that if the Prince of Wales himself could be persuaded of the sense in preserving a powerful naval tradition, who knows what could happen.
John Clink, the captain of Ark Royal, protests that he will not endorse a proposal to change the name of the second of the two new carriers. Prince of Wales is after all a famous warship name in its own right, and history shows that in the rarefied air below decks, men and women soon get used to the idea of a ship’s badge.
Creating a sense of pride begins in the shipyard, argues Captain Clink. “When the ship’s company arrive, it’s very special. There is a palpable pride. It starts with the badge: ‘You’re joining HMS Queen Elizabeth? Have the Queen Elizabeth cufflinks?’”
That said, he will admit that when he was informed by the Admiralty that he was to captain a ship, he sent an e-mail saying: “I don’t care what one it is — as long as it has two names.”
This “Spirit of the Ark” is part myth, part history. The first such vessel began life as the Ark Raleigh, before it was commandeered by Queen Elizabeth I from Sir Walter Raleigh and became the English flagship at the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
It took more than 300 years for a second — a converted collier — to sail from port, but that Ark Royal saw action at Gallipoli as an aircraft carrier. Its successor was even more illustrious, and one of its Swordfish bi-planes crippled the Bismarck in 1941. The fourth Ark never fired a shot in anger but spawned a 1970s TV series, still cheerfully remembered by the older crew. This vessel, the fifth, has seen action in the Balkans and in the Gulf.
Tradition, in other words, looms large here. Even the ship’s dentist, Lieutenant Commander Lindsay Falla, 29, takes up the cry. “What prestige to work here,” says the lieutenant, who achieved her qualifications at Glasgow University, where she signed up after seeing a Navy advertisement offering “Dentistry with a difference”.
“I knew almost immediately that dentist on Ark Royal was the one job for me,” she says. “There is no other job for a dentist in the Navy. I knew early on that if I could get posted here it would be what I wanted to do.”
The same mood has swept away the ship’s chaplain, Richard Ellingham, who has a fleece emblazoned with his nickname, “The Bish”, that he wears with pride. “I am sure there are plenty of chaplains out there who would love to be ‘the Bish’ in Ark Royal — it’s the fleet flagship, its a massive community, we are doing great things, and it is exciting,” he says.
At his breakfast table, with his commanders around him, Captain Clink remains phlegmatic about those two words, the name of his ship. He served in Fearless, a vessel that sailed for many years after it was due to be decommissioned. When it finally docked at Portsmouth harbour for the last time, he watched as men in their 50s and 60s lined the quay and cried.
So when this Ark Royal makes its last voyage, will he join the people weeping at the dockside? “Yes,” he says with a smile. “Sign me up for that.”
But the Spirit of the Ark moves in mysterious ways. As his senior officers troop off to work, one of them says: “Listen, you never know what might happen.”
Photograph by James Glossop, whose photoblog should be on line soon. This article is also available at timesonline.