LEGO ® Ships



A ‘Lego® Carrier’

Tom Adams MBE


Post the Falklands War in 1982 the UK Ministry of Defence arranged a follow-on charter of T & J Harrison Line’s ASTROMNER for reconfiguring of the Arapaho system. A unique Anglo-American aviation package designed for rapid and hopefully economic installation aboard suitable container ships. Designed to support helicopter/VSTOL operations with flight deck, hangars, fuel and accommodation.


Lego Ships

An expanded view of the Arapaho system, described to the author as the ‘Lego concept’.

[Author’s collection]



Arapaho was a research and development project fronted by the US Naval Air Systems Command at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in conjunction with the UK. Owing to erratic funding the Arapaho [Note 1 below] development took about ten years until sea trails in early October 1982. Funded at a reported cost of  US$12m for design and development to see if anti-submarine warfare assets could be made operational from container ships.

This was a system weighting about 900 tons was intended to be bolted onto a compatible ship in as little as 24 hours. So converting the ship into a helicopter operating base – in effect a modern rapid form of the wartime MAC Ship (MAC being an acronym for Merchant Aircraft Carrier). Comprising 56 flight deck modules which, when secured on the deck of a suitable ship providing a hangar for up to four Sea King ASW helicopters and with two operating spots. The hangar was made up of 28 standard TEU containers and housed flying control, briefing room for air and ground crew, aircraft workshops and stores, power generators, fuel pumping and fuel filter arrangements, damage control and fire fighting




The Arapaho concept was trialled, in October 1982, on a US containership – the EXPORT LEADER in Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. Deployed from the Maritime Administration’s James River Reserve Fleet this 18,000-ton ship was fitted out with a flight deck, hangar, fuelling system, night lights, power supplies and damage control facilities. However, this was not an ‘underway trial’ as the ship had only been partially re-activated. Her main engines remained off and she was towed at this trials location. She successfully conducted 178 day and 45 night landings with various US Navy and Marine Corps helicopters. British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and ‘West’ German pilots participated with officers from the Netherlands and Chile observing operations.

British Naval Staff interest was interestingly described by one US official as ‘has been an eager and enthusiastic – albeit relatively penniless – ally in its development’.

At around the same time British Aerospace had been studying the defence of merchant shipping and promoted the application of containerised systems known as SCADS (Shipborne Containerised Air Defence Systems) as suitable for arming merchant ships


Reliant 3 Tom

The Arapaho system fitted RFA RELIANT (3) showing the block structure aft of her funnel (built on the poop deck) was known as ‘The Hilton’ and the superstructure forward of her funnel was known as ‘The Tower’. Then the flight deck with the hangar complex right forward

[Author’s collection courtesy BAe Dynamic Group]  


The Arapaho prototype package [Note 2 below] was leased from the USN and delivered to the UK in April 1983. The system with its pre-fabricated flight deck and hangar arrangement was then further developed by UK designers at British Aerospace, Bristol – adding around 70 further modules for accommodation, domestics, fuel, magazines and logistics. The chartered container ship MV ASTRONOMER was then fitted out at Cammell Laird’s Birkenhead yard for service as a Helicopter Support Ship.


The MV Astronomer


Ordered 18.08.1964 for the Charente Steamship Co Ltd (Thos & Jas Harrison) Liverpool; launched 6.07.1976 by Stocznia Gdansk im Lenina, Gdansk, Poland a 1,202 TEU cellular container ship.  Completed 20.07.1977 for a reported cost of £9.6m. Registered in Liverpool as ASTRONOMER for the Charentre Steamship Co for the ‘Carol’ Lines consortium service from the UK and Europe to the Caribbean and Central America.

28.05.1982 ASTRONOMER was requisitioned by HM Government – legally a MFA (Mercantile Fleet Auxiliary) – at the time Civil Servants introduced a term that has become globally common – a STUFT (Ship Taken Up From Trade). 31.05.1982 she arrived in Plymouth and was the largest and last ship to be converted for our South Atlantic venture. In an astonishing six days she was converted and stored as an aircraft ferry and repair facility. She was fitted amidships with a flight deck, hangar forward, Avcat system, workshops, additional communication systems and accommodation. She was also fitted with replenishment-at-sea gear



The mercantile fleet auxiliary ASTRONOMER with NP2140 embarked, fitted with landing spot amidships and hangar arrangement forward. [Author’s collection]


As a ‘mercantile fleet auxiliary’ with Naval Party 2140 aboard she was fitted with 20mm Oerlikon guns, chaff decoy launchers and a Unifoxer anti-torpedo decoy. She arrived in the Falkland’s waters on 26.06.1982 with a mix of 13 helicopters (Chinooks, Sea Kings and Wessex) and hundreds of tons of stores. She relieved the helicopter support ship RFA ENGADINE and interestingly in the aftermath of the war she supported about 1,000 deck landings and serviced a significant number of helicopters. By December 1982 she had returned to the UK for destoring, restoration and return to her owners.


The Reliant (A131)

Following the war there had emerged an operational need to deploy up to five Sea King ASW helicopters to support the Falkland Islands garrison. The most effective method to achieve this was judged to be the use of the US Arapaho system. MoD negotiated to lease the system and to convert a suitable ship. After technical considerations the proven ASTROMNER was chosen and in January1983 arrangements commenced to recharter her for two years.

By April 1983 she was demise chartered for a more permanent conversion into a Helicopter Support Ship under the Director General of Supplies and Transport (Naval) for crewing and management as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary with operational control exercised by Flag Officer Third Flotilla under C-in-C Fleet. The daily charter fee was reported at £9,000 and an estimated budget for the conversion was £30m.

On 20.04.1983 she arrived at Cammell Laird Shipbuilders Ltd, Birkenhead where in conjunction with British Aerospace Dynamics Group her conversion commenced. Together with the flight deck and hangar, this included British modified modules for accommodation, water purification and storage, heating and ventilation, power generation and distribution, supply, logistics, ordnance facilities and a 600-ton Avcat fuel system.

24.06.1983 approval given to rename her as RELIANT

In January 1984, after 10 days of operational sea training at Portland, that included preparing her SHOLS (ship helicopter operating limits) she was rapidly diverted to the Eastern Mediterranean with three Sea King HC4s troop carriers of 846 NAS. During January/February she was deployed with HM Ships and other RFAs [Note [3 below] as part of Operation Offcut – supporting the British peacekeeping force in Lebanon (BRITFORLEB).

On 8.02.1984, in poor weather and in a potentially hazardous position she moved close off the Lebanese coast under air cover provided by Phantoms of No 56 Squadron RAF. In what the Chief of the Defence Staff described as “a delicate manoeuvre in a sensitive environment” RELIANT successfully managed the redeployment of BRITFORLEB from shore-to-ship. This was a ten-hour airlift – using three Sea Kings and three RAF Chinooks and involving 56 deck landings – safely moving 115 British troops, their vehicles and stores.

Only a few days later RELIANT became the hub for another airlift when her three Sea Kings successfully evacuated over 500 civilians from 26 nations from the British Embassy in Beirut and from the port of Jouniet. Later these evacuees were moved from RELIANT to RAF Akrotiri by Chinook and Wessex helicopters.

This ‘unintended’ Mediterranean deployment actually proved a valuable trial of the Arapaho system unveiling design faults and defects that would have been serious in South Atlantic conditions. Although ISO containers were interlinked each was still a separate ‘brick’ so there were gaps between them that permitted vibration, leakage, corrosion and rust. Hangar arrangements were not sufficiently watertight and the surface of the 200 x 64ft galvanised-steel mesh flight deck damaged aircraft and vehicle tyres and needed plating over. .

4.04.1984 she arrived at Devonport for destoring then in August she went to Swan Hunter at Wallsend for docking A&As and rectification of her Arapaho defects. This was followed by BOST and COST programmes at Portland



RELIANT at Wallsend for corrective As&As. ‘The Tower’ with the onboard Liebherr 40-ton gantry crane forward of wheelhouse and above ‘The Village’ container complex. This crane was originally designed to move the length of the deck forward or aft and could plumb both port and starboard sides of the ship. It could still be used, after some hours of preparation, to recover an aircraft from the sea but was unable to place it on the flight deck. Such a recovery would have required the aircraft to be held alonside for transfer to a dockside or barge.  [courtesy Brian Hargreaves]

In November 1984 she eventually deployed on South Atlantic (Falklands Island Protection Zone) duties supported by NP2240 and operating with ‘armed’ Sea Kings of 826 NAS providing surface search and control and passive and active ASW surveillance.

Whilst the utility of the Arapaho concept had been demonstrated the experiences of the South Atlantic highlighted continued deficiencies with the system. These were due essentially to the temporary nature of the concept, for example:

  • Hangar watertightness was serious and would require considerable redesign.
  • Flight deck wetness, whilst not preventing flying did make deck parking questionable.
  • Watertightness of both the hangar and accommodation ‘village’ placed a strain on the electrics.
  • The issue of excessive noise and flexing from the movement of the containers when ship was at sea.
  • The vertical sub-division of the ship’s hull made full use of her cargo carrying capacity impossible as access to holds was blocked by the flight deck being built over her hatches.
  • This highlighted accommodation problems specific to the difference in RFA/RN requirements.
  • RELIANT’s propulsion/speed range was limited and would need to be addressed if choosing future host ships.

Planners were actively drawing up a Naval Staff Requirement for replacing her with a RFA-manned Aviation Support Ship. By 25.07.1986 RELIANT had returned to Birkenhead where the Seaforth Welding Co removed her Arapaho gear [Note 4].

5.08.1986 RELIANT was officially withdrawn from service;

8.08.1986 owing to the cost of restoration to her owner’s standard she was purchased by the Crown reportedly for £3.2m;

11.09.1986 advertised for sale ‘as lies’ in West Canada Dock, Liverpool;

27.10.1986 sold reportedly for £1.2m to Parramatta Shipping Co, SA, Panama (managers Miltrend Shipping Co, Hong Kong) renamed ADMIRALTY ISLAND

04.1989 renamed WEALTHY RIVER (Panamanian convenience flag);

1990 transferred to Unison Maritime SA, Panama (China Merchants Steam Navigation International Ship Trade Co Ltd, Taiwan) name unchanged;

1994 owners given as Rubimonte Maritime inc, Panama (Cosco Container Lines, Beijing); 07.09.1998 she arrived Alang, India for scrapping.

Despite reservations regarding deficiencies RFA RELIANT was described as more sophisticated than HMS FEARLESS and at one-tenth the cost of an INVINCIBLE class carrier, RELIANT was one of the most unique ships to appear in the Navy List


The ship – a summary

Displacement – (fl) 28,000 tons, 17,770 (light) tons

Measurements – 27,867 grt, 9,900 dwt; length 669,2ft (203.7m) oa, 633ft (193m) bp; beam 101.3ft (30.8m); draught 0ft (8m).

Machinery – Single 10-cyl RND90 two stroke 900 x 1,650mm Sulzer by diesel by H Cegielski, Poznan, 29,000 bhp at 122rpm, single 6-blade propeller, speed 21.5k, bunkers 3,200t FFO, 630t diesel, consumption 60tpd;  fixed pitch 1,200hp bow thruster and Denny-Brown-AEG fin stabilisers. 100tpd Reverse Osmosis plant for fresh water.

Complement – The ship’s organisation was unique with the Commanding Officer – a Captain RFA being responsible for driving and maintaining the ship. The embarked RN Flight Commander was the Senior Naval Officer and undertook her operational aviation tasks. The ship’s company comprised 50 RFA officers and ratings (including two Hong Kong Chinese laundrymen), seven UK Civil Servants from the RNSTS (under the STO(N)) and initially five seafarers from the Harrison Line who were familiar with the ship. Naval Party 2240 of 100 Fleet Air Arm officers and ratings (including aircrew, Medical Officer, Meteorological Officers and helicopter controllers); 30 RN General Service and Air Engineers from the newly formed RFA Air Support Unit at RNAS Culdrose. She could accommodate up to 100 troops in quite austere conditions.

Self-defence arrangements – From the start this ship was intended for operations in a hostile zone so she was fitted with two 20mm GAMBOs forward (port and starboard) and two GMBOs on ‘The Hilton’ top (port and starboard) and six GPMGs. She had Plessey Shield chaff launchers (on monkey island) and a Unifoxer. However, she lacked degaussing, sonar decoys and NBCD citadel arrangements.

Operational areas – This can be summarised as

1. ‘The Hilton’ – A large four-storey accommodation complex constructed on the poop deck. This was designed to provide accommodation and stores for RFA, RN and STO(N) personnel and reportedly suffered from a high level of vibration.

2. ‘The Tower’ – This was the ship’s original six deck superstructure providing accommodation, storage for provisions and recreational space for the ship’s RFA crew. This was the original ‘Harrison’s’ accommodation and despite the low quality of original Polish permanent fittings this was generally seen to be of high quality. The wheelhouse was modified to meet RFA requirements.

  • Navigation and communications arrangements included Kelvin Hughes 806 X-band (10cm) ARPA radar with ability to detect and track up a score of targets; Kelvin Huges 799 navigation I-band (3cm) radar, supported by Redifon NV10 satellite navigation, Decca 21 and Marconi Lodestone MFD/F. A small operation ‘room’ was located (port side) on the bridge and was fitted with a radar display slaved from the 799 set with helicopter control, secure speech, radar beacon, a Link 14, an Admiralty ARL Mk 13 plotting table and a Sonar 2015 Bathythermograph. She had two Arma-Brown Mk 10 gyro compasses, Marconi and Krupp echo sounders.
  • A radio room was constructed with HF/VHF/UHF naval communications outfit comparable to a warship, including radio teletype and ship-to-air, with the encryption mechanisms. All situated next to her statutory commercial radiotelegraph installation. There was a small ‘tacbay’ fitted with VHF/UHF and secure speech arrangements. She was fitted with satellite communication and the commercial Marisat (satellite telephone) system. She had a ship-wide 3-channel TV and video system for operational and recreational use. Her meteorological information fit included Satfax (world wide satellite pictures) and Muffex equipment for printing display of weather information. She had an RFA standard visual signalling outfit.
  • Her chartroom provided an ad hoc HQ1 position fitted with IFF, a state board, gyro alarms and the alarm systems that covered the Arapaho complexes and The Hilton block.

3. ‘The Village’ – Forward of the superstructure this complex, fitted below the ship’s Liebherr container crane, comprised 50 containers providing full accommodation for the embarked RN personnel – 24 officers, 50 senior rates and 80 junior rates. This included offices, central galley, recreation spaces, laundry, NAAFI and briefing facilities for aircrew, power generation and distribution, water purification, sewage and the aviation fuel farm. The galley provided a 24-hour service to the aircrews. Hospital facilities was suitable for minor surgery, it was roughly the same as those fitted on a RN frigate – two beds and fitted X-ray apparatus, defribillator, cardioScope and resusictator equipment. 

Overall this accommodation was described as of a ‘high standard’ nonetheless it reflected a significant disparity with the standards provided in ‘The Hilton’ and ‘Tower’ areas. Because of its construction there was ‘undesirable and worrying’ noise from creaking within ‘The Village’ when the ship was at sea.

4 The flight deck/hangar arrangements – The flight deck and hangar complex were the mainly parts from the original US system. The flight deck was constructed of portable galvanised steel mesh with the hangar forward; ISO containers were stacked two deep and two high to form the port and starboard hangar walls and despite being constrained the hangar was capable, at a push, of stowing up to five Sea King helicopters. Nonetheless it was actually described as a spacious and functional working area on a stable platform with office accommodation, radio and electrical workshops. There were issues, such as, excessive noise and flexing from the movement of the containers when ship was at sea, the hangar doors did fail on a number of occasions causing significant disruption to the maintenance and flying programmes


Reliant 3 Tom3

RELIANT at Wallsend for corrective As&As. This is her hangar complex, showing the  hangar doors and just visible on top is the Glide Path Iindicator and to the starboard one can just about make out the ‘flight controller’s’ box. Here on her port side can be seen the boxes for sonobuoys and pryrotechnics [courtesy Brian Hargreaves]

Her amidships two-spot flight deck measured around 196 x 85ft. This was Chinook capable, albeit ‘cross deck’, and there are two Vertrep (vertical replenishment) spots. There was one HIFR (helicopter in-flight refuelling) point on the port side forward.

Described as good for day/night flying, this deck did not need constant painting, did not accumulate snow, ice or oil, however, the deck edges caused damage to fuel hoses and personnel clothing.

On the starboard side of the hangar there were a number of workshops, an acoustic analysis room, safety equipment, a ground crew office and rest room, the Metroc office and a ‘control tower’.

Within this complex explosives and weapons were stored in specially modified magazine containers with, for example, a torpedo maintenance room and the ASW magazine for around 18 x Mk46, 8 x Mk44 torpedoes and 8 x Mk11 depth charges. There was also bulk stowage of 20mm ammunition, sonobuoys and pyrotechnics.

On her port side of the hangar were the containers for the stowage of small arms, pyrotechnic magazine, smoke magazine (flares) and sonobuoys.  There was a water sprinkler system and the sonobuoys were stored in purpose made shelves. All had easy access to the flight deck.

5. The stores complex  –  Operationally the ship was equipped to support four Sea King helicopters for up to two years, with stores and spares stowed below the flight deck. This included some ASW helicopter spares. ‘Flyaway packs’ with spares and servicing equipment to keep Sea King HC4s operational for 30 days were also carried.

Despite the flight deck restricting some access the stores were built in the ship’s holds and under the management of a senior Civil Servant – a Supplies & Transport Officer (STO(N)) – equivalent to a Commander. This storehouse maintained a range of victualling stores, averaging 2,000 man/months of food plus 18,000 items of naval, general and air stores for both the ship’s consumption and when necessary to supply other units in the Fleet. This complex comprised 47 x 40ft converted ISO containers, 12 of which were refrigerated. It was based over a number deck levels, and all but nine of the containers were served by a 4-ton stores lift. Office space was provided together with a garage for servicing mechanical handling equipment, eg, forklift trucks.


MoD material – RFA RELIANTS’s newsletter, RN Broadsword, British Forces Cyprus press releases, Force 4  (RFA magazine)

The National Archives, Kew – DEFE24/1397, DEFE24/3025, BT110/2050/74

Hansard (House of Commons) (various editions)

United States Naval Institute Proceedings (various editions)

Lloyd’s List (various editions)

British Aerospace Dynamics Group product brochures and press releases

Flight International (various editions)

Naval Engineering Journal (various).


[Note [1]] Unlike most military projects ARAPAHO is not an acronym but simply a codeword given by the USN for the sake of convenience.

[Note [2]] The basic US Navy’s Arapaho package consisted of 56 flight deck modules to provide hangarage for up to four Sea King size aircraft with deck park space and two operating spots. Hangar walls made up of 18 ISO containers housing:

  • Flying control
  • Briefing room
  • Workshop
  • Stores
  • Power generation rooms
  • Fuel pumping, filtration equipment and firefighting arrangements.


[Note [4]] There is no firm information of what the USN have done with this equipment