Staff Writer (Updated: 4/22/2015):
The USS Kitty Hawk was ordered on October 1st, 1955 and laid down by New York Shipbuilding Corporation on December 27th, 1956. She was launched on May 21st, 1960 and officially commissioned on April 29th, 1961 with Captain William F. Bringle at the helm. The vessel made her official homeport at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard out of Bremerton, Washington but saw much activity through San Diego while also operating offshore of the Yokosuka Naval Base at Yokosuka, Japan. The Kitty Hawk was ultimately replace in the latter position by the USS George Washington before returning stateside for decommissioning in late 2008. The Kitty Hawk was known under the nickname of "Sh@tty Kitty" and was the second US Naval vessel to be named after Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - site of the Wright Brothers first manned flight under power.
USS Kitty Hawk was of a conventional design and layout, following in line with other American aircraft carriers of her class constructed during the Cold War. She fielded four total launch catapults, a forward launch deck and an angled recovery deck fitting arrestor wires for incoming aircraft. The multi-story island superstructure - capped with various antenna, communications systems and a tall-standing mast - was set to the aft starboard side of the flight deck and powered elevators along the edges were used to deliver and recover aircraft from both sides of the flightdeck. Three elevators were set to the starboard side - two were positioned forward of the island superstructure and one aft - while the fourth elevator was set to the aft portside. Design was such that the vessel could launch and recover aircraft simultaneously so as to keep its air wing active at all times - such consistency critical during wartime. The bow was tapered at a point to help the large vessel cut through all types of waters while the hull at amidships was broad and flat. The stern was squared off. USS Kitty Hawk was staffed with up to 5,624 officers and enlisted personnel. The vessel displaced at 62,335 tons on a standard load and upwards of 83,301 tons on a full load. Her running length from bow to stern was 1,068 feet with a beam reaching 282 feet. Her draught was listed at 40 feet. Power was supplied by Westinghouse geared steam turbines and 8 x steam boilers delivering 280,000 shaft horsepower to four shafts. Her top speed in ideal conditions was listed at 33 knots.
The Kitty Hawk's offensive punch stemmed from her stable of up to 85 aircraft though 70 was a typical air wing load. Her air wing was made up of interceptors/strike fighters, airborne early warning aircraft, transport aircraft and multirole helicopters. Her defensive punch relied highly on her flotilla of support ships but she, herself, was outfitted with surface-to-air missiles of which ultimately became upgraded RIM-7 Sea Sparrows by the end of her tenure. These were navalized versions of the air-to-air medium-range missiles used on American military aircraft. Additionally, her defensive umbrella was ultimately upgraded to include 2 x RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile installations as well as 2 x Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) fittings.
Following commissioning , the USS Kitty Hawk set out on the requisite "shakedown" cruise in the Atlantic to work out her kinks. She then deployed out of Norfolk, Virginia for a stop in Brazil to undergo joint exercises with the Brazilian Navy and made further stops at Chile and Peru before arriving at port in San Diego, California. Kitty Hawk was then made flagship of the 7th Fleet and relieved USS Midway in this role on October 7th. Kitty Hawk took part in the Philippines Republic Aviation Week Air Show beginning on November 30th, 1962. Sailing forth, Kitty Hawk stopped in Hong Kong by early December and finally arrived on station off of Yokosuka, Japan on January 2nd, 1963. After several stops across Japan, Kitty Hawk returned home to San Diego on April 2nd, 1963.
In June, US President John F. Kennedy and other top ranking officials came aboard to observe operations. By November of that year, Kitty Hawk's flags were flown at half mast following the assassination of President Kennedy. She entered Sasebo Harbor in Japan on November 25th, conducted additional exercises with the 7th Fleet in the Philippines thereafter and sailed for San Diego, arriving there on July 20th, 1964. She relocated to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to undergo the required overhaul after months of active service at sea.
Kitty Hawk then saw her first combat actions when she was called to support the growing American presence in the Vietnam War. Her carrier air wing became active from November of 1965 to May of 1966, charged with attacking North Vietnamese ground targets of value utilizing her collection of onboard strike fighters. For her sustained activity during this period (60 days of continuous operation), Kitty Hawk received the Navy Unit Commendation and Presidential Unit Citation. In June of 1966, she returned to San Diego for a scheduled overhaul and training of new personnel. She remained there until November 4th, 1966 before returning to waters off of Vietnam. She relieved the USS Constellation as flagship in the region on November 19th and, on December 5th, her air wing was active in combat operations once again. She left the region on May 28th, 1967 before arriving in Japan and ultimately reaching San Diego on June 19th. She underwent another refit period, this time at Long Beach, before returning for training back at San Diego on the 25th of August. On October 12th, 1972 - while heading back to Vietnam waters - Kitty Hawk was home to a racially-charged riot that left some 50 of her sailors injured - a stain on an otherwise fine service record.
Kitty Hawk then underwent a conversion program that saw her designation change from CVA-63 to CV-63, her strict "attack" categorization dropped. She was now considered a "multi-mission" vessel that could undertake anti-submarine operations with the help of new onboard systems and helicopters. Kitty Hawk became the first such vessel to showcase the CV designation. During the lull, the vessel was also refueled with Navy Distillate Fuel to replace the old Navy Standard Oil. New catapults were also installed for the incoming fleet of Grumman F-14 Tomcat interceptors. Throughout the early and middle part of the 1970s, the Kitty Hawk took part in several major exercises. By 1976, she underwent a major overhaul that reworked several of her internal systems and structure. Her self-defense "Terrier" missiles were now upgraded to the "Sea Sparrow". After another exercise, Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego on May 15th, 1978.