HMS Illustrious returned home to Portsmouth this evening after completing a £40m maintenance and upgrade programme in Scotland.
The 22,000 tonne ship, nicknamed Lusty, was away in Rosyth dockyard in Fife for 16 months where she underwent modifications to turn her into a helicopter carrier capable of carrying a force of up to 20 choppers and 600 personnel.
Hundreds of families and friends of the ship’s company turned out at Portsmouth Naval Base to welcome the 32-year-old warship home around 5pm.
Commanding Officer, Captain Jerry Kyd, said: ‘It is a great honour and tremendously exciting to bring this famous carrier, HMS Illustrious, back to her home port of Portsmouth. My magnificent crew have worked for many months away from family and friends, some for 18 months, and our return today is testament to their characteristic professionalism and commitment.’
Lusty’s relaunch as a helicopter and commando carrier comes after the decision to axe the Royal Navy’s fast jet fleet last year.
The warship, which is the sister ship of the former aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Invincible, will also be decommissioned in 2014 to save cash, the government announced last December.
Her refit - which began before the defence cuts - saw 540,000 litres of paint applied to the warship including a sleek, fuel efficient outer hull coating that will save tonnes of fuel and carbon emissions during her remaining life.
A new computer and communications system and defensive anti-torpedo system has been installed, as well as improvements to living conditions for the crew.
Lusty’s left Scotland on June 20 for sea trials, conducting full power tests of her engines and propulsion. Weapon systems have been test-fired and communications, radars and computer systems have also been put through their paces en route to Portsmouth.
Earlier this week, Illustrious welcomed helicopters from the navy’s Fleet Air Arm back to her flight deck for the first time in 18 months.
She will undergo further sea trials in waters around Portsmouth during the next few weeks before her official rededication ceremony later this month.
Capt Kyd said: ‘We formally rejoin the fleet at the end of this month, and I know I speak for all the men and women in Lusty, when I say that we are looking forward greatly to meeting whatever challenges the government sets us in the coming years.’