IN a previous incarnation she guarded the Humber during the First World War.
And now HMS Illustrious could be steaming up the river one last time under ambitious plans to make her the centrepiece of a major new tourism venture on the East Coast.
Illustrious, the last of three Invincible-class light aircraft carriers still in service, is due to be decommissioned next year and the Ministry of Defence has said she will be preserved for the nation – saving her from the unfortunate fate of her sister ships, Invincible and Ark Royal, which have both been sold for scrap to Turkish ship-breakers.
Academics, tourism bosses, business leaders and councillors in Hull are now beginning to prepare for a possible bid to defence disposal authorities to have the warship berthed on the Humber.
It would be the only aircraft carrier preserved as a museum and tourist attraction anywhere in Europe and could also be used for conferences and business meetings.
It could be a significant catalyst for economic regeneration in the city and wider region – the Russian cruiser Aurora has attracted 28m visitors to St Petersburg since 1956, while the USS Intrepid in Manhattan has welcomed 10m visitors since being opened as a museum in 1982.
Although there is likely to be competition from elsewhere, those behind the project believe the city would have a strong case, with its maritime heritage and proud links to the military and Royal Navy, and not least to “Lusty”, as the carrier is affectionately known.
The plan is to maximise the existing maritime and military tourism attractions in the region, placing Illustrious at the centre of a “cluster” including: Arctic Corsair, the former trawler now berthed on the River Hull; the Spurn Lightship in Hull Marina; Hull’s Maritime Museum; Fort Paull just outside the city; the Cold War-era nuclear bunker at RAF Holmpton in the East Riding; and Eden Camp, the former Second World War Prisoner of War camp near Malton, North Yorkshire, while also making more of underused historical sites such as the Hull shipyard where the Bounty was built.
Professor Calie Pistorius, Vice-Chancellor of Hull University, launched the idea while considering projects that could stimulate the city’s economy.
He said he hoped it would give Hull the recognition it deserved.
“The ship is going to be preserved and we would very much like to make a bid for it, but it needs to be part of a wider attraction,” he said.
“It just happens to be that the most iconic ship ever is available. We need to convince the MoD we need the ship and we can look after it.”
He added: “Hull’s wealth has always come from the sea, through fishing, shipping and whaling, and the next wave will hopefully be renewable energy.
“What this project will do is put the city back on the map because the city has got a fantastic story to tell.”
Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, is backing the plan.
He said: “We like big ideas and they don’t come much bigger than this. We are delighted to throw our weight behind plans to bring this iconic former Royal Navy aircraft carrier to rest in Hull.
“It will be a major asset in terms of being a tourism attraction, but also as a conference venue and education and research facility.
“We look forward to working with official bodies involved in the campaign to make it happen.”
As well as working on economic impact studies, project leaders will have to prepare a business case demonstrating the validity of the project and proving the vessel could be adequately cared for.
It poses some significant logistical challenges, such as where to place a 22,000-tonne ship that is 686ft long and has a beam of 118ft.
Although having Illustrious as a floating museum may be attractive, the maintenance requirements may make it easier – and cheaper – to put her in a dry dock, although this would have to be built.
And then there is the purchase cost – it is not certain what the going rate will be for a retired aircraft carrier in 2014, but it is thought the Turkish company Leyal paid around £3m for Ark Royal last year.
Hull Council leader Steve Brady said: “It’s been proven, not only this country but around the world, that with a great attraction like that it also starts to bring in private businesses around it. What we’ve got to look at now is where an aircraft carrier would fit because they are absolutely huge.”