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USS Hornet braces for El Niño

The USS Hornet at Pearl Harbor in 1942, U.S. Navy

By Peter Hegarty | The Oakland Tribune | Published: February 4, 2016

ALAMEDA (Tribune News Service) — Not only did the USS Hornet battle enemy ships and fighter planes during the ship's time at sea, it braved the weather. And it shows.

Sun and rain, salty ocean spray and the many aircraft that took off and landed battered the flight deck of the "Old Gray Ghost," as the aircraft carrier that's now a floating museum was affectionately known to sailors.

An $800,000 project to waterproof the deck, as well as repair elevators that once ferried aircraft topside from the cavernous hangar bays, is nearly finished.

Now the museum's staff and volunteers are pushing to raise the final $100,000 that will make the Hornet eligible for a $250,000 grant to help pay for the work.

The Hornet's colorful history includes destroying 1,410 Japanese aircraft and more than 1.2 million tons of enemy shipping during World War II. It also saw service during the Cold War and Vietnam War and picked up Neil Armstrong and other Apollo astronauts from the Pacific Ocean after they returned from the moon.

The ship's flight deck includes layers of steel, teak and other material. The previous upgrades took place sometime before 1970, when the Hornet was mothballed and seemed destined for the scrap yard.

The sheer size of the 100,000-square-foot flight deck made it unclear just where leaks were, even as water pooled from recent rains and dripped down into the ship.

"It's like your house," said Jill Knowland Rapposelli, the Hornet's executive director. "You discover water coming down through your ceiling. But then you have to find the leak in the roof. It could be coming from anywhere."

So much water was seeping through the ceiling in the captain's conference room just below the flight deck that workers set up a plastic garbage bucket to collect it. A poster that covers one wall and shows what appears to be an Italian landscape was damaged.

"It was a gift to the Hornet from Pat Nixon, the wife of President Nixon, for the ship's role in the recovery of the Apollo astronauts following the first moon landing," said Scott Zirger, the museum's director of operations.

Zirger believes the poster, which looks like it came from a 1970s living room, can be saved.

An added incentive to repair the damage is that the museum staff want to open the room to the public, as well as another room that Navy admirals used when the ship was at sea.

"It's ideal for a group or company wishing to hold a private get-together," Zirger said.

The Hornet opened as a museum in October 1998. The Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation owns the ship, which receives no government funding.

Along with displays of vintage aircraft and space memorabilia, the nonprofit museum has exhibits about military history and can be rented as a venue for corporate and other events. Scouts and other youth groups also can stay overnight.

On Feb. 20. the museum will present "Tails of the Tomcat," a talk by author and photographer Paul Koudounaris on the long history of feline ship mascots. The Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter is helping host the 1 p.m. event, and adult visitors who bring a pet toy or food as a donation will receive 50 percent off the admission price.

The ongoing activities made repairs to the flight deck essential, Rapposelli said.

"We did not want to have any more damage because of El Niño," she said. "We have basically completed the work. Now we just hope people will help us pay for it."

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©2016 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)

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