SAN DIEGO - After 41 years, 21 overseas deployments and eight combat tours, the aircraft carrier Constellation left San Diego Bay yesterday for the final time for a long, slow journey into retirement.
For sailors who had served aboard the giant ship known as "Connie," it was a sorrowful occasion.
"Connie is my girl," said Chief Petty Officer Efren Ponce, one of a group of sailors who sang "Anchors Aweigh" as the ship departed. "She's where I learned how to be a sailor. I'll miss her."
Tugboats pushed the 1,069-foot-long, 80,000-ton ship away from the dock at North Island Naval Air Station. Its boilers cold, its engines silent and its electronic gear stripped away, the Constellation will be towed to the mothball fleet at Bremerton, Wash.
"It's very sad to see her like this, just a hulk," Chief Petty Officer Salvador Calfy said. "She's too young and too good to go like this."
Maybe so, but the Constellation is also too expensive. The Navy cannot afford the $500 million a year it costs to maintain and operate the ship, one of only three conventionally powered carriers in the Navy.
Navy strategy calls for 12 carriers. With the recent commissioning of a 13th, the nuclear-powered Ronald Reagan, the Constellation became expendable. The Reagan is expected to arrive in San Diego in the spring to join the carriers Nimitz and John C. Stennis.
The Constellation was once home to 5,000 sailors and Marines. On its final trip, only four sailors will be aboard to watch for problems with fire and flooding, the twin perils of all ships at sea.
At 4 to 5 knots, the ship that moved through the Persian Gulf at 35 knots to launch planes striking at Iraq will take two weeks to make the 1,200-mile voyage to the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility.
The Constellation returned to San Diego in June after a deployment in which its warplanes flew more than 1,500 missions and dropped 1.3 million pounds of bombs on targets in Iraq. "It was a fitting mission for her last deployment," said Lt. j.g. Ian Scott. "She was a warship, and she was good at it."
Even in military-centric San Diego, where the comings and goings of ships and Marine combat units are afforded large-scale news coverage, the Constellation was a standout. Coverage of the ship's decommissioning ceremony last month was voluminous, and four television stations provided live coverage of yesterday's unceremonious departure.
Part of the Constellation's charisma may come from its longevity. Few ships remain in the same homeport as long as it did. The number 64 on the ship's control tower, which is kept visible at nights by lights, is one of the most recognizable features of the local waterfront.
"That 64 has been there a long time," said Capt. Dan Landon, commanding officer at North Island. "It's going to be a big blank space out there."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.