NEW YORK (AP) – After 24 years at the same Hudson River pier, the legendary aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is overdue for some R&R – restoration and repair.

The ship’s rehabilitation begins today, when the high tide and New York harbor’s most powerful tugboat join forces to extract the World War II flattop from its berth for a one-day journey to a New Jersey shipyard. It will return in 2008 to a rebuilt pier, to resume its mission as a military and space museum dedicated to America’s war heroes.

The Intrepid’s move from Pier 86 has involved meticulous preparation worthy of its first departure for Pacific war combat in 1943. A 6,000-horsepower “tractor tug” has been assigned to pull the 27,000-ton ship into deep river water from the slip where it has rested in up to 17 feet of mud.

The move is timed for 9:15 a.m., when the river tide is at its yearly peak.

While officials conceded they couldn’t rule out last-minute problems, Intrepid president Bill White expressed confidence that pulling the carrier into open water would go smoothly.

“The people doing this have moved a thousand ships bigger than the Intrepid,” White said in an interview. “A ship that survived five kamikaze attacks is going to make it five miles down river.”

The British Airways Concorde supersonic jetliner that has been part of the Intrepid museum exhibit since 2004 will be temporarily relocated outside a new recreational center at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

The plane, known as Alpha Delta, still holds transatlantic speed records for commercial aircraft.

The carrier’s $60 million refurbishment will include opening up more interior spaces to the public, upgrading its exhibits and a bow-to-stern paint job in naval haze-gray.

Pier 86 will also be completely rebuilt in the Intrepid’s absence.

The ship’s collection of aircraft has been shrink-wrapped in plastic cocoons to protect them from the elements during the hiatus at a Bayonne, N.J., drydock.

New York Harbor’s most powerful tugboats have been enlisted to wrestle the mighty carrier from the mud that has embraced its keel for more than two decades.

Removal of 600 tons of water from the Intrepid’s ballast tanks gives the ship added buoyancy, and the Army Corps of Engineers recently dredged 15,000 cubic yards of mud to create a channel from dockside to deeper water.

The move was also meticulously timed to coincide with the year’s highest tide, giving the ship an added boost in the manner of sailing ships of old, which customarily made their departures from port on the outgoing tide.

Peter Shugert, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the Intrepid has been floating at recent high tides and the only factor that might interfere would be a strong wind.

The Intrepid’s movement will be marked with much pomp and ceremony – patriotic music, speeches and a Navy F18 Hornet fighter bomber flyover for the ship that served during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and as a recovery ship for NASA astronauts.

Two former mayors, Edward Koch and David Dinkins, will cast off the final mooring lines at the order of 80-year-old retired Rear Adm. James L. “Doc” Abbot, who served two years as Intrepid’s skipper in 1960-62 and has been named honorary commander for the day. Some 40 other former crew members also will be aboard, lining the deck as the ship makes its stern-first, five-mile trek to Bayonne, past the former World Trade Center site, Ellis island and the Statue of Liberty.

A wedge of four Corps of Engineers boats will precede the five tugboats shepherding the powerless carrier, as fireboats deliver traditional sprays of colored water. A huge American flag will be unfurled from the ship’s starboard side as it pauses opposite ground zero.

The Intrepid, launched in 1943, is one of four Essex-class carriers still afloat six decades after spearheading the naval defeat of Japan in the Pacific. It survived five kamikaze suicide attacks and lost 270 crewmen in battle.

Doomed to the scrap heap, it was purchased in 1981 by real estate developer Zachary Fisher, who realized his dream of turning the ship into the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum a year later.

It became one of New York’s major tourist attractions, drawing some 700,000 visitors a year. It also supports a Fallen Heroes Fund that has provided $14 million to aid families of service members killed and wounded in the line of duty and built a $35 million advanced training facility for disabled veterans.

AP-ES-11-05-06 1520EST

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