How the U.S. Navy Always Learns From Its (Deadly) Mistakes

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: A high operational tempo is putting stress on the U.S. Navy.

A series of collisions involving U.S. Navy destroyers in 2016 and 2017—including two incidents this summer that left sixteen sailors dead—have raised questions as to why the maritime fighting branch appears to be suffering the same accident again and again.

However, it can take time for organizations to learn from mistakes and implement solutions to deal with them. This fact was illustrated when it took no less than three catastrophic fires on U.S. aircraft carriers between 1966 and 1969 that killed more than 200 sailors before major reforms decisively improved safety onboard the giant flat tops. This final article in a three-part series looks at the last incident which occurred on the USS Enterprise.

All three of the disasters were triggered in part by rocket munitions. In 1966, a magnesium flare tossed into an ammunition locker caused rockets to detonate aboard the USS Oriskany, killing forty-four. Then in 1967, a Zuni rocket mounted on a fighter onboard the USS Forrestal accidentally launched due to a power surge, blasting into the side of an A-4 attack jet. This began a chain-reaction of detonating bombs and jet fuel that threatened to consume the conventionally-powered supercarrier.

However, these last two incidents occurred while the crew were undergoing the stress of launching dozens of jet aircraft a day into combat over Vietnam. Such was not the case for the USS Enterprise as she cruised seventy miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on in January 1969. The 1,100-foot long Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Escorted by the destroyer USS Rodgers and the missile cruiser USS Bainbridge, the supercarrier was undergoing flight drills in preparation for another deployment to Vietnam.

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