To play a part in building one flagship of the UK fleet is an achievement – but 18 men involved in the construction of the new aircraft carrier at A&P Group’s Tyne yard can now claim a magnificent double.
The skilled squad have the distinction of helping to build Britain’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth AND the nation’s last aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal.
The men all worked at Tyneside’s Swan Hunter yard more than 30 years ago when the 20,000 tonne, 214.7 metres (693 feet) long vessel was built.
A&P Tyne Project Director Darren Brown, responsible for the carrier section, was a teenage apprentice in the drawing office at Swan Hunter’s Palmer Yard when the Ark Royal was built.
Darren, 47, said: “My strongest memory was the amount of men working on it. I’d only be guessing but there must have been at least 1000.
“There was work going on around-the-clock and the progress was amazing, you’d go aboard one day and the next it would look completely different.”
The new aircraft carrier – which is 65,000 tonnes and 284 metres long – dwarfs her predecessor the Ark Royal.
Darren, from Hebburn, continued: “I never thought I’d be involved in another aircraft carrier, particularly the size of this one.
“It’s much bigger than the Ark Royal, it’s the biggest warship ever built in the UK and it’s brought shipbuilding back to the Tyne.
“It’s really put the Tyne back on the map. It gives you so much satisfaction knowing you’ve been party to one of the biggest engineering contracts ever been placed in this country. To know you’ve been part of building something this impressive gives you a real sense of pride.
“It’s been great for the yard, the workforce and the community. The yard has been buzzing, it reminds you of the old days when shipbuilding was the mainstay of the Tyne.
“It’s given continuity of employment, job security for a few years and has had a knock-on effect for lots of local businesses, right down to local taxi firms and stationery companies. Everyone reaps the benefits from an order like this.”
Plater/shipwright Tom Cole, 53, was on board the Ark Royal when it was launched by the Queen Mother at Wallsend in 1981 and slid down the slipway into the river, hitting it with such a splash that spectators were soaked by the waves.
Tom, from North Shields, said: “It was a great experience, seeing thousands of people waving and cheering from both sides of the river.
“To be honest, with the decline of shipbuilding that followed I never thought there would be another aircraft carrier built in this country, everything was going to foreign parts because it was cheaper, so I was really pleased when part of the new aircraft carrier came to the Tyne.
“It’s a marvellous thing to work on and be involved in. It gives you a real sense of pleasure and achievement to see vessels like the Ark Royal, and now the Queen Elizabeth, and know you’ve had something to do with it.”
Dave Henderson was an estimating clerk at Swan Hunter, responsible for materials and thousands of tonnes of steel coming into the yard to build the Ark Royal.
Dave, 59, from Hebburn, said: “This time we’ve built units for the new carrier rather than the whole ship but it’s still very nice to be involved and to see some of the old workforce still using their skills.
“ I worked at Swan Hunter until 1994 and after the yard closed I joined A&P and there’s quite a few old Swan Hunter lads here now.
“It has to be top-class workmanship for something as important as the aircraft carrier, otherwise it wouldn’t be accepted by the MoD, where the emphasis is on quality. The men who work on the aircraft carrier have to be at the top of their trade.”
Section leader Ronnie Olley, 54, worked on the Ark Royal as an apprentice plater. Ronnie, from Wallsend, said: “Everyone who helped build her felt proud, especially when she went off to fight in the Falklands War.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on the Tyne for the quality of our workmanship. I’d love to see entire ships being built here again. Building the modules for the new aircraft carrier has helped raise our profile and draw attention to the skills we have here.
“It will be great to see the Queen Elizabeth when she’s put together. I’ve enjoyed working on it and am looking forward to starting on the section for the second carrier, the Prince of Wales.