An Intrepid Journey
Visitors to New York City seeking a break from the crowds – as I was after a four-day Manhattan shopping marathon with my wife and daughter – should check out the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on the Hudson River, writes John Eichelsheim. Phots by John Eichelsheim and supplied.
The museum complex is a modest walk down West 46th Street from the Rockefeller Centre subway station (47th– 50th Street), through the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan’s Midtown West Side. The complex is located on Pier 86 on the corner of 12th Ave and 46th Street.
Anyone who likes military history, warships, submarines, planes or spacecraft will find something of interest at the Intrepid complex.
Exhibits include the WWII aircraft carrier Intrepid, after which the museum is named, the 1950s-era diesel-electric strategic nuclear missile submarine Growler; the Space Shuttle Pavilion housing the space shuttle Enterprise, along with the command module of a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft; the supersonic airliner Concorde and 28 restored military aircraft, many of which were operated by Intrepid during her long service life.
This is a modern museum that combines static displays with interactive audio-visual presentations and guided tours. Volunteer ‘friends of Intrepid’, some of whom served aboard the ship, are stationed at strategic positions around the ship answering questions and providing valuable insights into navy life.
The scale of the museum is breath-taking. Intrepid is an Essex-class aircraft carrier, laid down in 1941 and launched in 1943. She survived a torpedo strike and five kamikaze attacks during WWII, before serving through the Cold War and Vietnam War. She also did duty as a NASA recovery vessel for the Mercury and Gemini space programmes during the 1960s. Intrepid was decommissioned in 1974.
Over 50,000 men served aboard Intrepid between 1943 and 1974, with 270 losing their lives on duty.
By the standards of today’s aircraft carriers, and even carriers built later in WWII, Intrepid is a relatively small ship, but at 872 feet (266m) long and weighing 27,100 tons, she’s still an impressive beast with a flight deck the size of a couple of football fields.
She was designed to operate propeller aircraft and, with her sister ships USS Essex and USS Yorktown, had a wider, longer deck and an under-deck aircraft elevator system the previous generation Yorktown-class aircraft carriers lacked.
In the 1950s Intrepid was re-fitted to operate jets and later still converted to an anti-submarine role, which she fulfilled until her decommissioning.
On the flight deck are static displays of some 28 aircraft. They include propeller aircraft such as the Grumman Avenger from 1942 (original equipment for Intrepid), jets from different nations spanning three decades, including the Vought Crusader, a late 1950s aircraft capable of 1,300mph (2,0902kph), the fastest plane ever assigned to Intrepid; a Cold War era supersonic A-12 Blackbird spy plane; and a collection of military helicopters, search and rescue and anti-submarine aircraft.
The museum also operates an aircraft restoration programme. There were several aircraft undergoing restoration work during my visit, visible inside the temporary hangers built on the flight deck.
Visitors can climb up to Intrepid’s bridge. I visited the command bridge, the helm and the flight control room. Below the flight deck visitors have access to the Gallery Deck, the massive Hangar Deck where the planes were once stowed, and the Third Deck where you get a glimpse of life aboard ship: the enlisted men’s mess, a restored galley and crew berths stacked three high.
Life for the crew was not luxurious and I was struck by the utilitarian nature of every aspect of the ship. Military shipbuilding in the 1940s was a triumph of function over form, with very little concession to aesthetics or crew comfort.
My exploration of Intrepid was cut short by a power failure that forced the evacuation of the ship. Fortunately, there are plenty of other attractions on site.
With the Intrepid’s bridge and lower decks temporarily out of bounds, I headed for the other side of the pier and went aboard the Greyback Class submarine, Growler. This exhibit is open on weekends and public holidays only.
Growler was among the first generation of purpose-built strategic nuclear missile submarines. Commissioned in 1958 she wasn’t very different to the diesel-electric powered subs of WWII, apart from the large waterproof hangar protecting the cruise missiles on her deck.
In addition to four nuclear-armed Regulus I missiles, developed from WWII German V1 cruise missiles, she carried eight torpedoes. Growler could stay continuously submerged for a maximum of two days; patrols were up to 72 days long.
Very much a product of the Cold War, submarines like Growler were designed to cruise off enemy coasts, specifically the Pacific coast of the USSR, as a deterrent against and retribution for a nuclear strike on the USA.
Later submarines could deploy ballistic missiles from below the surface, but Growler had to risk an ascent to the sea surface to deploy her rocket launch-assisted, turbo-jet-powered cruise missiles. She had to stay exposed on the surface for up to an hour to fire each of her Regulus I missiles.
Moving through the cramped confines of the submarine, it was hard not to admire the crewmen who endured long tours of duty cooped up inside such a rudimentary machine. Creature comforts were few – two toilets and two showers for 100 crew – and the men slept in bunks stacked three high in corridors, machinery spaces and alongside the sub’s ordnance.
As with Intrepid, volunteers were on hand to answer questions and provide insights about life aboard a submarine like Growler.
With my Growler tour out of the way, there was the British Aerospace/Aerospatiale Concorde to take in.
Concorde Alpha Delta sits at one end of Pier 86 and is an exhibit of its own. Concorde is the world’s only supersonic airliner, able to fly at twice the speed of sound. Concorde Alpha Delta was built in 1976 and flew the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing by a commercial aircraft.
Flying at up to 2,150kph, she took just two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds to fly from New York to London on February 6, 1996. The Concorde fleet was retired in 2003 after transporting 2.5 million people at supersonic speeds.
Visitors to the museum get the opportunity to see this iconic aircraft up close. Book the tour (one hour) and you get to see inside too, including the flight deck. Designed to carry 100 passengers and nine crew, Concorde was luxuriously appointed, but the narrow fuselage optimised for supersonic flight feels low and cramped inside, and the faded décor is dated. The aircraft remains, however, a technological marvel and a rare treat to experience in the round.
Sticking with things that fly, at the rear of Intrepid’s flight deck, the Space Shuttle Pavilion houses the space shuttle Enterprise. Although it costs a bit extra to visit the pavilion, it’s well worth it.
Although Enterprise, the first shuttle to be built, never left Earth’s atmosphere, it was the test bed for the technology used on later shuttles. Enterprise was also used to test the theory that pieces of foam shed from the shuttle’s external fuel tanks could damage ceramic tiles protecting the orbiter’s fragile fuselage during re-entry.
Damaged or missing tiles are blamed for the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia which burned up re-entering the atmosphere in 2003. The tests conducted on Enterprise confirmed foam impact of the type Columbia sustained could seriously breach the thermal protection system on the wing’s leading edge.
Enterprise is impressively massive, dwarfing the Soyuz command module capsule, yet another testament to man’s faith in technology. I could not imagine being fired into space in such a tiny vessel, shared with two other cosmonauts. Brave stuff!
You can’t go aboard Enterprise, but the pavilion is full of fascinating interactive and audio-visual displays, which like the rest of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, are well worth the entry price to experience.