THE Royal Navy has celebrated 30 years since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious came into service.
An historic naval Sea Fury fighter plane, two Hawk jets, Lynx, Merlin, Sea King and army Apache helicopters soared above the ship in a dramatic flypast to mark the occasion.
The 22,000-tonne warship, dressed in colours for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, gleamed in front of 600 sailors who proudly lined the jetty for her birthday service.
The ship’s company gave a loud three cheers to Lusty, which was rushed into service in June 1982 because of the Falklands War.
She sailed from Swan shipbuilders on the Tyne and was commissioned at sea on the way to the South Atlantic, where she remained on station for six months after Argentina’s surrender.
Lady Sarah Chatto, who took over as the ship’s sponsor after her mother Princess Margaret died in 2002, inspected the guard of honour and led tributes.
She said: ‘My mother too was immensely proud to be have been sponsor of your great ship. Illustrious has always been a busy operational warship, entering service in 1982 to be immediately deployed to the Falkland Islands, followed by duty in the Persian Gulf, Adriatic, West Africa and the Lebanon.
‘Reaching 30 years old is a huge achievement given the rapid pace of technology but Illustrious is in immaculate condition thanks to the care of her ship’s company and those who’ve maintained her on land.
‘The air power and military capability that Illustrious is able to deliver makes her a Rolls Royce of warships.
‘Her Majesty the Queen knows I am her today and sends you her best wishes. Many congratulations on this very special birthday.’
Also addressing the ship’s company was the head of the navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, who commanded Illustrious from 1998 to 2000.
He said: ‘Today is a moment to pay tribute to each and everyone one of you. All of you who have served in her ship’s company, embarked air squadrons and Royal Marine Commandos. Everyone of you should be proud, indeed very proud, of what you stand for, proud of what you have achieved and equally all those who have supported her, especially those here in Portsmouth should feel that pride as well.’
The ship’s current commanding officer Captain Martin Connell said: ‘It’s an incredibly proud day for all the ship’s company. For me, it’s a good opportunity to show off my ship and say that 30 years on we are still going strong.’
Illustrious returned from a £40m, 16-month refiit in February last year and, following the loss of the navy’s Harrier jump jets in defence cuts, is in a new role as a helicopter carrier.
For the past year, she has been operating with Army Apache helicopters, armed with Hellfire missiles, on her flight deck.
This was the case last month when the warship took part in Exercise Joint Warrior, major international war games off the coast of Scotland.
The government has Illustrious will leave service in 2014.
But before she is decommissioned, she will be the UK’s on-call helicopter carrier.
Capt Connell said: ‘We are now at a very high readiness now to go and do whatever is needed of us anywhere around the world at very short notice.’