Victory lap for longest serving flattop
HMS Hermes was laid down at Vickers-Armstrong on 21 June 1944, two weeks after the Allies stormed ashore at D-Day. She was the last of the quartet of Centaur-class carriers whose construction was started. Originally to be named HMS Elephant, she picked up the messenger of the gods moniker of the old carrier (Pennant #95) sunk by the Japanese in 1942.
Only finished on 18 November 1959 (after 15 years at the builders) with a much-altered plan that included an angled flight deck to allow the operation of jet-powered aircraft at sea, and carried the RN Ensign for a very solid three decades. She carried the 63 foot long, 30-ton Blackburn Buccaneer–which was the same size as the later F-14 Tomcat and could carry up to 6-tons of ordnance including the British Red Beard or WE.177 tactical nuclear bombs to a range of some 2,300 nautical miles, only she did so off a tiny deck compared with U.S. super carriers.
During the Falklands, Hermes did the bulk of the heavy lifting as the flagship of Rear Adm. Sandy Woodward’s Task Force 317.8 for the war and it was her Harriers, along with HMS Invincible‘s that prosecuted the airwar.
Refitted, she was sold to India in 1987 and took the name INS Viraat (R22) and, home ported in Mumbai, she has served the Indian Navy for 29 continuous years, undergoing a further five refits while in Indian service. While in Indian service, INS Viraat – the Grand Old Lady, as she was fondly referred to – spent 2,250 days at sea covering 1.09 million kms — or encircling the globe 27 times.
The last British-built ship serving the Indian Navy, INS Viraat was the star attraction at the International Fleet Review held in Visakhapatnam in February this year. Her last Sea Harrier, (White Tigers in Indian service), flew from her deck on May 6, and was given a formal farewell at INS Hansa, in Goa two days later.
There, her sensitive and usable equipment will be removed over the next two months. Afterwards, she will be towed back to her base in Mumbai, for formal decommissioning, the date of which has not been finalized.
With a total of 57 years of active service in two fleets, she beats out the longest serving U.S. carriers: USS Lexington (CV/AVT-16) which put in 48 years; and USS Enterprise (CVN-65) which put in 50. Even USS Midway (CVB/CVA/CV-41), commissioned in 1945 and struck in 1997 though decommissioned five years before that, only served 52 years if you count her time on red lead row.
The next closest competition came from HMS Vengence/NAeL Minas Gerais which was completed 15 January 1945 in time to serve with the British Pacific Fleet in the last days of WWII, continue operations with the Australians and then, from 1960 to 16 October 2001, serve with the Brazilian Navy, for a combined total of 55 years, 9 months under three flags. Ironically, that vessel was scrapped in India in 2004.
Plus Hermes/Viraat‘s hull actually has another 15 years on it before she was even commissioned, so there is that.