Kitty Hawk was laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey, 27 December 1956; and launched 21 May 1960, sponsored by Mr. Neil H. McElroy; and commissioned 21 April 1961 at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Captain William F. Bringle in command.
With the decommissioning of on 30 September 1998 Kitty Hawk became the ship with the second longest active status in the Navy. (The sailing ship in Boston Harbor is 209 years old and is still retained on active Navy status.)
In 2008 Kitty Hawk will be replaced as the forward-deployed carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Japan by the . The Kitty Hawk will then return to the United States for decommissioning on 31 January, 2009. Given the commitment to retain 11 active carriers, she will be decommissioned near the time of the commissioning of the . For some time, she was one of only two aircraft carriers ever to be honored with flying the First Navy Jack (as of 2002, all U.S. Navy ships fly this jack).
Kitty Hawk entered San Francisco Naval Shipyard on 23 November 1961, for alterations. Following operations out of San Diego, she sailed from San Francisco on 13 September 1962. Kitty Hawk joined the US 7th Fleet on 7 October 1962, relieving as the flagship.
After participating in the Philippine Republic Aviation Week Air Show, Kitty Hawk steamed out of Manila Harbor on 30 November 1962, and welcomed Admiral Harry D. Felt, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, for a demonstration of modern naval weapons, 3 December. The ship visited Hong Kong early in December and returned to Japan, arriving at Yokosuka 2 January 1963. During the following 2 months, she visited Kobe, Beppu and Iwakuni before returning to San Diego on 2 April 1963.
On 6 June 1963, President John F. Kennedy, with top civilian and military leaders, boarded Kitty Hawk to witness a carrier task force weapons demonstration off the California coast. Addressing the men of the task group from Kitty Hawk, President Kennedy told them that, as in the past, control of the seas still means security, peace and ultimate victory. He later wrote to President and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who had witnessed a similar demonstration on board : "I hope you were impressed as I was, on my visit to Kitty Hawk, with the great force for peace or war, which these mighty carriers and their accompanying escorts provide, helping to preserve the freedom of distant nations in all parts of the world."
Following a series of strike exercises and tactics reaching along the California coast and off Hawaii, Kitty Hawk again sailed for the Far East. While approaching Japan, she learned an assassin had shot President Kennedy. Flags were at half mast as she entered Sasebo Harbor 25 November 1963, the day of the President's funeral and, as senior ship present, she had the sad honor of firing memorial salutes. After cruising the South China Sea and ranging to the Philippines in readiness operations with the 7th Fleet, she returned to San Diego on 20 July 1964.
Kitty Hawk was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for exceptionally meritorious service from 26 November 1965 to 14 May 1966 while participating in combat operations displayed undaunted spirit, courage, professionalism and dedication to maintain their ship as a fighting unit under the most arduous operating conditions to enable her pilots to destroy vital military targets in North Vietnam despite intense opposition and extremely adverse weather conditions.
Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego in June 1966 for overhaul and training until 4 November 1966 when she again deployed to serve in waters of Southeast Asia. Kitty Hawk arrived at Yokosuka, Japan, on 19 November to relieve as flagship for Rear Admiral David C. Richardson, Commander Task Force 77. On 26 November, Kitty Hawk departed Yokosuka for Yankee Station via Subic Bay, and on 5 December, aircraft from Kitty Hawk began their around-the-clock missions over North Vietnam. About this time Kitty Hawk — already accustomed to celebrities as guests — entertained a number of extremely prominent visitors: William Randolph Hearst, Jr.; Bob Considine; Dr. Billy Graham; and John Steinbeck, among others. She remained in the Far East supporting the US in Southeast Asia until departing Subic Bay 28 May 1967. Steaming via Japan, the carrier reached San Diego 19 June and a week later entered the naval shipyard at Long Beach for maintenance. Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego 25 August and began a rigorous training program to prepare her for future action.
On 12 October 1972 during the Vietnam War, Kitty Hawk was en route to her station in the Gulf of Tonkin when a racial brawl involving more than 100 sailors broke out. Nearly 50 sailors were injured in this widely-publicized incident. This incident resulted in a congressional inquiry into discipline in the Navy.
Kitty Hawk stayed busy throughout the mid-1970s with numerous deployments to the Western Pacific and involvement in a large number of exercises, including RIMPAC in 1973 and 1975.
Kitty Hawk departed San Diego on 8 March 1976, and on 12 March entered dry dock at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, to commence a US$100 million complex overhaul, scheduled to last just more than 12 months. This overhaul configured Kitty Hawk to operate with the F-14 and S-3A "Viking" aircraft in a total CV sea control mode. This included adding spaces for storage, ordnance handling and maintenance facilities for the two aircraft. Also included in the work package were more efficient work areas for airframes and a repair facility for ground support equipment and the addition of avionics support capability for the S-3. The ship also replaced the Terrier Surface-to-Air missile system with the NATO Sea Sparrow system, and added elevators and modified weapons magazines to provide an increased capability for handling and stowing the newer, larger air-launched weapons. Kitty Hawk completed the overhaul in March 1977, and departed the shipyard April 1 of that year to return to San Diego. After a six month pre-deployment workup, Kitty Hawk departed NAS North Island 25 September 1977 for another WESTPAC and returned 15 May 1978.
On her way home from this extended cruise, Kitty Hawk was filmed entering Pearl Harbor for a cameo appearance in the 1980 movie The Final Countdown, starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen. In this role, Kitty Hawk played the part of the in the movie, with the crew manning the rails as the ship pass the USS Arizona memorial. At the time of the filming Nimitz was still an Atlantic Fleet, vice Pacific Fleet, aircraft carrier, necessitating Kitty Hawk's role as a stand-in. Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego in late February 1980 and was also awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation and the Naval Air Force Pacific Battle Efficiency "E" as the best carrier in the Pacific Fleet.
In April 1981, Kitty Hawk left San Diego for her thirteenth deployment to the Western Pacific. Following the cruise, the crew was awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal for the rescue of Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea.
In January 1982, Kitty Hawk returned to Bremerton for another yearlong overhaul. Following the comprehensive upgrade and a vigorous training period with Carrier Air Wing 2, Kitty Hawk deployed in 1984 as the flagship for Battle Group Bravo. Kitty Hawk logged more than 62,000 miles on this deployment and remained on (Gonzo) station in the North Arabian Sea for more than 60 consecutive days. On 21 March 1984 at the end of Team Spirit exercises, a Soviet nuclear-powered Victor class attack submarine (K-314) that had been shadowing the exercises surfaced under the Kitty Hawk in the Sea of Japan. At the time of the accident, Kitty Hawk is estimated to have carried several dozen nuclear weapons, and the submarine probably carried two nuclear torpedoes. The ship pulled into the U.S. Naval Base, Subic Bay Philippines to pull out one of the screws from the sub that was stuck in her hull, along with other repairs. The ship returned to San Diego on 1 August 1984. Seven months later, Kitty Hawk was awarded another Battle Efficiency "E" Award.
In July 1985, Kitty Hawk and CVW-9 deployed again as flagship for Battle Group Bravo. Kitty Hawk and CVW-9 combined to set a standard for operations, completing their second consecutive fatality-free deployment.
CVW-9 crews logged more than 18,000 flight hours and 7,300 arrested landings while Kitty Hawk maintained her catapults and arresting gear at 100 percent availability.
Kitty Hawk bid farewell to San Diego on 3 January 1987, as the ship departed her homeport of 25 years and set out on a six-month world cruise. During the circumnavigation, Kitty Hawk and CVW-9 again showed their commitment to safety by conducting a third fatality-free deployment. Kitty Hawk spent 106 consecutive days on station in the Indian Ocean and was again awarded the Navy Expeditionary Medal and the Meritorious Unit Commendation for its service. The world cruise ended at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on July 3. Six months later, Kitty Hawk began a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) overhaul. Kitty Hawk emerged from the yards on 2 August 1990. The overhaul was estimated to have added 20 years of service to the ship.
On 1 August 1992, Kitty Hawk was appointed as Naval Air Force Pacific's "ready carrier." The ship embarked Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 5; Commander, Destroyer Squadron 17 and CVW-15 for three months of work-ups before deploying to the Western Pacific on 3 November 1992. While on deployment, Kitty Hawk spent nine days off the coast of Somalia supporting U.S. Marines and coalition forces involved in Operation Restore Hope. In response to increasing Iraqi violations of United Nations sanctions, the ship rushed to the Persian Gulf on 27 December 1992. Just 17 days later, Kitty Hawk led a joint coalition offensive strike against designated targets in southern Iraq.
Kitty Hawk set sail on her 17th deployment 24 June 1994, with the goal of providing a stabilizing influence operating in the Western Pacific during a time of great tension in the Far East, particularly concerning North Korea.
Kitty Hawk began her 18th deployment in October 1996. During the six-month underway period, the ship visited ports in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific. Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego 11 April 1997, immediately beginning a 15-month, $110 million overhaul, including three months in dry dock in Bremerton, from January to March 1998.
Kitty Hawk departed San Diego on 6 July 1998, to assume new duties as America's only permanently forward-deployed aircraft carrier from . Kitty Hawk also welcomed aboard Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, operating from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan. Kitty Hawk arrived at her new operating location of Yokosuka, Japan, on 11 August 1998.
Kitty Hawk set sail for a planned three-month underway period 2 March 1999, which included Exercise Tandem Thrust off Guam. Following the exercise, the Kitty Hawk/CVW-5 team was ordered to the Persian Gulf to enforce the No-Fly Zone over Southern Iraq. CVW-5 pilots flew more than 8,800 sorties in 116 days, including 1,300 combat sorties, dropping more than 20 tons of ordnance. On the return trip to Japan, Kitty Hawk made port visits to Perth, Western Australia, and Pattaya, Thailand. Kitty Hawk returned to Yokosuka 25 August 1999. She was again underway to the Sea of Japan 22 October to participate in Exercises Foal Eagle and AnnualEx 11G.
On 11 April 2000, Kitty Hawk departed Yokosuka, Japan for routine local area operations and to participate in Exercise Cobra Gold with the navies of Singapore and Thailand. Kitty Hawk participated in Exercise Foal Eagle in Fall 2000, and deployed again in March 2001 for a Spring underway period with a historic stop. On 22 March, Kitty Hawk became the first aircraft carrier to ever moor pier-side in Singapore, as the ship visited the brand new Changi Pier, located at the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base. On 29 April, shortly after a visit to Guam, Kitty Hawk celebrated 40 years of active service as the ship and crew sailed south to participate in Exercise Tandem Thrust 2001 with the Australian and Canadian navies. The ship returned to Yokosuka 11 June 2001.
On 17 October 2000, two Russian aircraft, a Su-24 Fencer and a Su-27 Flanker, overflew Kitty Hawk at about 200 feet of altitude. At the time, Kitty Hawk was in the midst of an underway replenishment in the northern Sea of Japan, between the island of Hokkaido and the Russian mainland. Following the overflight, the Russian pilots e-mailed pictures of their overflight to Kitty Hawk's web site. Russian aircraft also overflew Kitty Hawk on 12 October and 9 November.
In October 2001, Kitty Hawk again made history and helped redefine roles. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks at The Pentagon and World Trade Center, Kitty Hawk deployed to the North Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The ship served as an afloat forward staging base for U.S. special forces, showing the continued adaptability of U.S. aircraft carriers.
In April 2002, Kitty Hawk was underway for her scheduled spring training. Along with a Guam port call, the spring underway included port visits to Singapore and Hong Kong, where the crew celebrated Kitty Hawk's 41st birthday. In the fall of 2002, Kitty Hawk was training in the Western Pacific. Kitty Hawk and her battle group combined with U.S. Air Force units and elements of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force to conduct AnnualEx 14G in the waters surrounding Japan. Later, Kitty Hawk's crew made a port visit to Hong Kong.
On 11 September 2002, all US Navy ships were ordered to fly the First Navy Jack. Having lost the honor of being the only ship authorized to do so, the Kitty Hawk began to issue ball caps that included the design.
The ship once again departed Yokosuka on 23 January 2003 for a routine training mission, but a short time later, orders were received to transit to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to support the Global War on Terrorism and to prepare for future contingencies. Kitty Hawk was soon involved in Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom in the North Persian Gulf. Although the cruise was originally intended to be short, the ship ended up serving 104 continuous days at sea. Kitty Hawk returned to Yokosuka 2003-05-06, immediately entering an extensive dry-dock period, or dry-docking ship's restricted availability (DSRA).
On 3 July 2005, Kitty Hawk pulled in at Sydney, Australia for shore leave. Later, during the same cruise, the Kitty Hawk made a port call in Guam for four days. In November 2005, the Kitty Hawk anchored at Hong Kong, and was there for Thanksgiving. In June 2006, after a six month SRA period, the Kitty Hawk once again got underway, was overflown by a Russian IL-38 May, and shortly after pulled into Otaru, which is on the Japanese island of Hokkaidō, and Singapore. In August 2006 the carrier pulled into Fremantle, Australia for shore leave. In September 2006, the Kitty Hawk made the final port call of her Summer deployment at Pattaya, Thailand, after which she returned to her home port of Yokosuka.
In the month of October 2006 the Kitty Hawk and her escort warships were undergoing exercises near Okinawa, and a Chinese Song class submarine shadowed the group then surfaced within five miles of the group on October 26, 2006. It was considered to be quite rare for Chinese subs to operate that far from their homeports on the mainland, though with this incident that may be changing. Reports claim that the submarine had been undetected until it surfaced.
On 11 January 2007 Kitty Hawk entered a scheduled period of maintenance in Yokosuka, her place being taken by the which made an unscheduled deployment three weeks later. This refit is "smaller than the one the ship completed [in 2006] which took six months.
In November 2007, the USS Kitty Hawk and other US Navy ships performed a joint military exercise, in the Bay of Bengal. Other nations that took part in this exercise were Australia, India, Japan and Singapore. Later that month, the Kitty Hawk was scheduled to dock at Hong Kong for Thanksgiving . However, China denied entry to the Kitty Hawk and the rest of her carrier group. China then reversed its position based on humanitarian grounds but by that time the Kitty Hawk was too far away to dock in time for the holiday. The cause of the Chinese refusal remains unclear.
On 1 December 2005, the United States Navy announced that will replace Kitty Hawk in 2008 as the forward-deployed carrier in Japan and it will also assume host carrier duties for forward deployed Carrier Air Wing 5.
The reported decommissioning date for USS Kitty Hawk is 31 January 2009. The official Navy press release on the USS George Washington-Kitty Hawk turnover notes that the ship will return to the States for decommissioning. Given the commitment to retain 11 active USN carriers, it will be decommissioned this year, in line with the commissioning of .
In March 2007, the Navy announced that Captain Todd Zecchin, the captain responsible during the decommissioning of the , has been tasked with overseeing the decommissioning of Kitty Hawk.
The Kitty Hawk left Yokosuka on 28 May 2008 to begin the decommissioning process. On May 22, a fire seriously damaged George Washington, causing the ship to go to San Diego, California for repairs. The Kitty Hawk participated in the RIMPAC exercise near Hawaii in George Washington's place. The turnover between the two carriers was postponed indefinitely and would take place in San Diego instead of Hawaii. Kitty Hawk's active service was extended several months during repairs aboard the George Washington. Further dates will be announced when the Kitty Hawk is homeported in Bremerton, Washington for decommissioning