Saturday, January 12, 2019

Fifty Years Ago: The Enterprise Inferno


Firefighting drills are one of the most routine yet important activities conducted aboard aircraft carriers, one of the most dangerous working environments in the world.  Here, Aviation Electrician's Mate Airman Cedric Sims, left, receives training from U.S. Navy Aviation Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Jeremy Troutman on proper fire fighting nozzle handling techniques during a drill aboard the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) on Nov. 12, 2005.  (Photographer's Mate Airman Apprentice Brandon Morris/ Defense Visual Information Archive)
USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) appears along the waterfront at Naval Station Norfolk sometime after its commissioning at Newport news shipbuilding in 1961 and before its homeport change to Naval Air Station Alameda, California, in 1965. At the time of its commissioning, Enterprise was the largest ship in the world. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Aircraft carriers are often thought of as the most powerful type of vessel in the Navy’s arsenal, yet they have long been among the most vulnerable.  Standoff missiles and submarine torpedoes have been a cause of concern for many decades, but new long-range precision strike weapons such as hypersonic glide vehicles fielded by America’s adversaries are a significant cause for concern. Their potential for anti-access/area denial erodes the matchless advantage of flexible presence that an aircraft carrier affords within what is widely known as the “global commons.”   

Black smoke rises from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) in the aftermath of a fire that occurred while she was underway conducting air operations near Hawaii (USA) on January 14, 1969. Some of the subsequent 18 explosions were 500-lb. bombs cooking off in multiples, leaving 20-foot holes in the armored flight deck. Losses totalled 28 dead, 343 wounded, and 15 aircraft destroyed. (National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida, via Wikimedia Commons)
Damage control teams fight to bring a fire under control on the flight deck of USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) on the morning of January 14, 1969. (Photographer's Mate 3rd Class S.A. Osterbauer/ National Archives and Records Administration via National Museum of the U.S. Navy/ flickr)
Despite the proliferation of technically advanced weapons that experts believe portend frightening scenarios for, among other precious strategic assets, our carrier strike groups, the greatest threat carrier Sailors face today is the same type of threat they faced 50 years ago this week aboard the carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN 65): Accidents.
Commander Nicholas J. Smith, III, maintenance officer and air-to-air ftest pilot for Air Development Squadron VX-4, steadies a mini-rocket as an Aviation Ordnance Airman loads other Zunis on a U.S. Navy F4D Skyray on September 28, 1959. During the following decade, the rockets would figure into two of the worst flight deck fires in the United States Navy's history. (National Museum of the U.S. Navy via flickr)
As it was then, and as it is today, it doesn’t take much to bring a carrier’s combat operations to a catastrophic halt. At approximately 8:19 am on the morning of January 14, 1969, during training operations southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the 15-pound warhead of an unguided Zuni rocket nestled in a pod under the wing of a F-4 Phantom fighter detonated after it was exposed to hot exhaust gasses emanating from a gas turbine starter unit mounted at the rear of a flight deck tractor.
Clouds of black smoke rise from USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) on the morning of January 14, 1969. The fire broke out as the ship was conducting air operations 75 miles south of Pearl Harbor. Part of the destroyer Rodgers (DD 876) can barely be seen above the smoke attempting to fight the fire alongside. (Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Lawrence T. Henderson/ National Archives and Records Administration via National Museum of the U.S. Navy/ flickr)
As happened during a similar fire aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59) during combat operations off Vietnam in July 1967, also touched off by a Zuni rocket, the explosion spread burning aviation fuel across the flight deck, causing more ordnance to detonate. Three more Zuni rocket warhaads detonated in the first few minutes, followed by multiple Mk 82 500-pound bombs, variants of which are still deployed aboard carriers today, including three on the same wing pylon that detonated all at once, were powerful enough to breach Enterprise’s armored flight deck, spreading the burning fuel, and the devastation, to decks below as well as the carrier’s cavernous hangar bay.
As the flight deck fire is brought under control, USS Rogers (DD 876) remains on station, aiding crewmen of USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) as they fight the fire. The fire broke out as the ship was conducting air operations 75 miles south of Pearl Harbor on January 14, 1969.  The nuclear-powered cruiser Bainbridge (CGN 25) can also be seen coming to the carrier's aid. (Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Patrick J. Ryan, National Archives and Records Administration via National Museum of the U.S. Navy/ flickr)
Crewmen of USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) continue to douse fires still smouldering on the after flight deck. While the remains of several aircraft, including F-4 Phantoms and an A-7 Corsair II can clearly be seen, only one wing is left of a fully-fueled KA-3 Skywarrior that was located on the far port side of the deck. (Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Lawrence T. Henderson/ National Archives and Records Administration via National Museum of the U.S. Navy/ flickr)
The conflagration was brought under control within 45 minutes and was completely out roughly four hours later, but 27 Sailors died and 314 were injured. Fifteen aircraft were also destroyed.  As a result of the accident, Enterprise had to undergo 51 days of repairs at a cost of over $125 million.  Even so, the quick thinking of the carrier's captain and crew as well of those of accompanying vessels limited the damage, and Enterprise was still able to complete its next regularly scheduled deployment off Vietnam, one of six it would successfully complete during the Vietnam War.
Large holes along the aft port quarter of Enterprise's flight deck among the partial remains of aircraft can easily be seen as mop-up operations continue.  As a testament to the resiliency of the carrier and its crew, Enterprise still made its scheduled deployment.  Afterward, Enterprise returned to Newport News Shipbuilding for an overhaul. (Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Stanley C. Wyckoff/ National Archives and Records Administration via National Museum of the U.S. Navy/ flickr)
Enterprise was officially deactivated in December 2012, decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Registry in 2017, its defueling was completed the following year, and the deactiviation process was completed in April 2018. Those sharp-eyed enough can catch a glimpse of its superstructure heading south through Newport News on I-664 near the southern end of the massive shipyard where it was built, Newport News Shipbuilding.
On June 20, 2013, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) departs Naval Station Norfolk for Newport News Shipbuilding. Enterprise will be dismantled at the shipyard prior to the scheduled commissioning of the next aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 80). (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Scott Barnes via Wikimedia Commons)
Sometime within the next decade a new Enterprise (CVN 80) will leave the same shipyard for another half-century or more of service. Although the new ship will feature new damage control capabilities that will mitigate risks to the crew in the event of an accident, no technological innovation can eliminate them. For the untold thousands of Sailors who will serve aboard it, many of whom haven’t even been born yet, the same vigilance, bravery, and capacity for self-sacrifice will doubtless be required of them as for those who served aboard every ship before it that bore the name Enterprise.