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USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)

The USS Kitty Hawk was a supercarrier, an unofficial designation for the largest aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy that was in active service for nearly 50 years, from 1960 through 2009. She belonged to the Kitty Hawk class of carriers with the designation CV-63 and saw deployment in South Africa, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and other areas and was awarded several citations for service.

In addition to serving the country for so long, the Kitty Hawk also caused harm to the men and women who served aboard her because she had been constructed with hundreds of asbestos materials and components. While these were supposed to protect the sailors and officers that served on board, asbestos materials caused exposure that led some veterans to later develop terrible illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

About the USS Kitty Hawk

The USS Kitty Hawk was an aircraft carrier, given the designation CVA-63 and later CV-63 when her status changed from attack aircraft carrier to multi-mission carrier. Unofficially she was known as a supercarrier, a type of carrier longer and larger than other types. The Kitty Hawk displaced over 81,000 tons when fully loaded, was over 1,000 feet long, and was powered by Westinghouse turbines and Foster Wheeler steam boilers, both companies that provided the navy with products that contained asbestos. She could carry 5,624 people and 85 aircraft.

The Kitty Hawk was named for the location in North Carolina where the Wright brothers famously made the first manned flight of an aircraft, an appropriate choice for a ship built to deploy and recover aircraft. She was also the namesake for the class of carriers called Kitty Hawks. The Kitty Hawks were all supercarriers that improved on the previous class of Forestall carriers with arrangements that made it easier to launch aircraft as well as a bigger size.

Construction and Upgrades

The USS Kitty Hawk was laid down at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in 1956 in Camden, New Jersey. It took four years to build her and she was launched in 1960. The launch was conducted by flooding the dry dock instead of by the usual method of slide down. It was deemed too risky because of her massive size. There was a chance she would hit the far shore on the other side of the Delaware River. She was commissioned by Captain William F. Bringle in 1961 at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

Over her many years of service, the Kitty Hawk underwent numerous repairs, maintenance, and upgrades to keep her in good condition and able to continue serving. She received her first big overhaul in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington in 1965 and again in 1966 in San Diego. In 1973 her home port became San Francisco, and it was here that she received numerous upgrades. She also underwent extensive upgrades in the 1980s, including the Service Life Extension Program overhaul, designed to prepare her for several more years of active service.

Deployment and Service History

The USS Kitty Hawk is the second-longest serving carrier in the U.S. Navy. She was decommissioned in 2009 but is still in one piece and could be called back into service if needed. Her nearly 50 years of service began in 1961 with post-shakedown training exercise and demonstrations in Brazil and Peru. She next spent much of her service time in the waters off of Japan, conducting tests and trials. In 1963 she hosted President Kennedy.

In 1967 and 1968 the Kitty Hawk served during the Vietnam War, earning a Presidential Unit Citation for heroic service, which included operations during the Tet Offensive. Continued operations in Southeast Asia earned the ship the Navy Unit Meritorious Commendation for the honorable actions of the crew that allowed airmen to make important strikes against North Vietnam targets.

The Kitty Hawk also saw darker times, including a race riot on board in 1972, which involved more than 200 sailors, caused 50 injuries, and instigated a special investigation on discipline. She also suffered a fault in the jet fuel system that caused a fire in 1973, killing six sailors on board. They were posthumously awarded for bravery in trying to put out the fire.

In the 1980s the USS Kitty Hawk was deployed several more times to the western Pacific, including operations in Korean waters and assisting refugees in South Vietnam. She returned again in the 1990s, playing an important role in suppressing tensions caused by North Korea. In 2001 she was deployed to the Arabian Sea to assist in Operation Enduring Freedom. She returned to Japan later for more exercises and left for the last time in 2008 and was decommissioned in 2009.

Asbestos Use on the USS Kitty Hawk

Asbestos was used heavily and extensively on the USS Kitty Hawk. Constructed in the early 1960s the ship was made during a time when asbestos was used in many industries. For shipbuilding it was desirable because it was lightweight and could insulate and fireproof. As the 1973 incident on board demonstrated, fires on ships are extremely dangerous and often fatal. Using materials to prevent the spread of fires keeps crew safe.

The most asbestos was used in areas of the ship where heat was generated and fire was a big risk. This includes the engine, boiler, and turbine rooms. These large, heat-generating pieces of equipment were made with asbestos for insulating and fireproofing. Pipes throughout the ship were also insulated with asbestos materials. It was also used in spray-on insulation and fireproofing, fire safety gear, ropes, deck matting, flooring materials, and ceiling materials.

Asbestos Exposure on the Kitty Hawk

Asbestos use on many U.S. Navy ships, including the Kitty Hawk is well documented, but so is the exposure that personnel experienced. Anyone on serving on her before her major Service Life Extension overhaul in the 1980s was likely to have been exposed to asbestos. That overhaul probably removed much of the harmful asbestos, but the decades before that caused serious harm in some veterans.

Those at the greatest risk worked in the engine, boiler, and turbine rooms or maintained and repaired that equipment or insulation that contained asbestos. These workers were likely to have disturbed the asbestos materials, releasing the fibers that can cause illness later. Also at risk were the many people who worked on constructing the Kitty Hawk or who made repairs and upgrades over the years.

Appeals to the Veterans Administration show just how some of these service men and women were impacted by asbestos. In one case a sailor developed asbestosis, a lung scarring caused by asbestos exposure. He had worked on upgrades and repairs to the Kitty Hawk in San Francisco in 1961 and 1962.

Some veterans who were harmed by the ship’s asbestos also sued manufacturers who provided the materials used on the ship. One such veteran who served on the Kitty Hawk in the 1960s developed mesothelioma. He did repair work and handled cement, valves, pumps, and gaskets in the engine rooms, all components that contained asbestos. He won a $12.1 million award in court from the manufacturers and suppliers of those parts for their failure to warn of the risks.

If you served on the USS Kitty Hawk you may have been exposed to asbestos and you could now be at risk for developing an asbestos illness. Experts recommend getting screened early and regularly if you may have been exposed in order to get an early diagnosis. You can also work with the Veterans Administration to get benefits if you are diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness from working on the Kitty Hawk.

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