A U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier's Greatest Fear (And It's Not Russia or China)

A U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier's Greatest Fear (And It's Not Russia or China)

It's fire.

Two deadly collisions involving U.S. Navy destroyers in June and August 2017 may have cost the lives of up to sixteen sailors, leading the Navy to declare a day-long operational pause to reflect upon its safety culture. That such similar accidents took place in such close proximity reflects stresses and failings common to the maritime fighting branch.

In the 1960s, the Navy also suffered a series of deadly accidents aboard its carriers. In their wake came major reforms addressing the inherent dangers of operating ships packed full of explosive munitions, fuel and jet planes. This three-part series will examine why each of the accidents occurred, how the crew responded and the lessons that were drawn from the tragedies.

(Throw Those) Bombs Away!

The USS Forrestal was the United States’ first supercarrier, and the largest ever built when it was commissioned in 1955. Capable of launching larger, more powerful F-4 Phantom fighters on its thousand-foot-long flight deck using steam catapults, the Forrestal was deployed to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin in July 1967 to contribute its Carrier Air Wing 17 to the intense bombing campaign over Vietnam.

Just nine months earlier, the smaller USS Oriskany experienced a devastating fire that killed forty-four sailors and pilots, all caused by a mishandled flare which triggered rockets stored in an ammunition locker. Misfiring rockets would also prove the bane of the Forrestal, but faulty bombs were more deeply implicated in the tragedy.

 

The Navy was flying hundreds of missions every day over Vietnam, with its A-4 Skyhawk attack jets typically carrying one thousand-pound bomb under each wing. In just four days of combat operations, the Forrestal’s air wing flew 150 missions, many targeting the Thanh Hoa railroad bridge in North Vietnam. That operational tempo depleted the munitions stocks at an extraordinary rate, so old M65 bombs were dispatched to fill the gap.

Everyone who laid eyes on the antiquated M65A1 bombs knew they were trouble when they were taken aboard on July 28. The Korean War–vintage munitions had been improperly stowed in humid conditions for more than a decade, and were leaking liquid paraffin from the seams and coated in rust and grime due to their age. Ordnance technicians were afraid to handle them. The short, stubby bombs were armed with unstable Composition B in a thin metal casing, while newer Mark 83 bombs used the more stable Composition H6 in a thick casing. A Mark 83 bomb could endure eight to ten minutes in a raging fire before cooking off, as demonstrated in Navy instructional videos, giving firefighting crews enough time to respond.

To their credit, several officers did their best to prevent the weapons from being used. The ordnance chief at Subic Bay in the Philippines insisted that the weapons should have been destroyed, not employed, and only released them after making strenuous objections. Upon being loaded on the Forrestal, the carrier’s ordnance chiefs expressed their concern to Capt. John Beling. Beling agreed, and requested different munitions from the ammunition ship Diamond Head, but was informed that none were available. Feeling he had no choice, Beling made sure the bombs were stored on the flight deck rather in the ship’s magazine as a safety precaution.

Rockets On Deck

Initially, however, it was not the bombs that sparked trouble.

At 10:50 a.m. on July 29, the day after receiving the old bombs, a Mark 32 Zuni rocket mounted on a parked F-4B Phantom suddenly ignited in its LAU-10 launcher and shot off across the flight deck. The unguided rocket was a staple weapon for ground-attack missions over Vietnam. Normally, the weapon was only primed to launch shortly before takeoff with a “pigtail” plug connecting the rocket’s circuits with the fighter. However, the Forrestal was being requested to fly so many combat sorties that plugs were inserted early to save time, an exception to procedure that had been approved because earlier missions had been delayed by faulty plugs. Most likely, a power surge while switching to the Phantom’s electrical system had triggered the weapon’s actuator.

The five-inch rocket slammed into the side of the bomb-laden Skyhawk of Lt. Cmdr. Fred White, commander of attack squadron VA-46, as he was queued up for takeoff. The blast ruptured his plane’s four-hundred-gallon external fuel tank and caused two wing-mounted M65 bombs to fall onto the flight deck. JP-5 jet fuel from the tank sprayed across the deck and immediately ignited.

The Forrestal’s damage-control team swiftly responded to the accident. However, the nearest fire pump was already wreathed in flames, and the second closest failed to generate water pressure. The crew could only rely on a single hose spooled further up deck to begin spraying the flaming bombs with water, even as the fire spread to engulf the next Skyhawk beside White, manned by John McCain, the future senator from Arizona. Seeing flames licking around his jet, McCain climbed down the nose of his plane and jumped off the refueling probe, though his flight suit caught fire upon landing.