On May 17, 2006, at 10:25 a.m., the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Oriskany exploded belowdecks. Bright orange flames flashed, followed by a deep boom heard and felt by observers more than a mile away. A thick plume of black smoke billowed from the ship’s hanger decks as she listed to port, at first slowly, then with increasing speed. As the Oriskany’s sea-tight compartments took on water, she sank rapidly astern, her hurricane bow rising high above the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As her bow pointed higher and higher into the blue, cloudless sky, the Oriskany’s control tower –- the nerve center of her flight operations –- sank below the waters, the tip of the bow following quickly behind her. In the end, all that remained was the warm Gulf water bubbling and frothing where once a proud warship had stood.

The sinking took only 37 minutes.

U.S. aircraft carriers aren’t supposed to sink this easily, or this quickly. They are designed to take an unimaginable amount of damage and keep on sailing. Their fierce indestructibility lies at the core of the United States’ naval strategic operations. But this was no ordinary aircraft carrier, and it wasn’t sunk by enemies of the United States. It was sunk by the U.S. Navy.

And when it was all over, the Navy had successfully created the largest artificial reef ever made –- 888 feet in length -- only 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Florida.

The Oriskany: Veteran of Two Wars

The Oriskany, known by former crew members as the “Mighty O,” was the last of the World War II-era Essex class of carriers, built just in time to see active duty in the Korean War. Named for a New York town that was the site of a bloody Revolutionary War battle, the Oriskany was later fitted with a series of upgrades to make room for larger, faster jet fighters.

Pressed into active duty again at the start of the Vietnam War, the Oriskany, a small and maneuverable holdover from pre-Korean War days, actually outperformed the newer and bigger carriers that were being built at the time.

Notably, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) flew from the decks of the Oriskany in 1967 on the ill-fated mission in which he was shot down and held as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton for five years.

The Ship is Decommissioned

After the war, the ship was featured in the films The Bridges of Toko Ri and The Men of the Fighting Lady. By 1976, however, she had seen her last useful service, and was decommissioned by the Navy. An estimated 45,000 sailors had served aboard the ship during her 26 years of active service.

Since then, the Navy tried repeatedly to get rid of the Oriskany. Three attempts to scrap her outright her were unsuccessful when the Navy was unable to find contractors to take on the job. Attempts to convert the Oriskany into a floating museum – as was done with her famous sisters, the Intrepid, Hornet, Yorktown, and Lexington -- were likewise unsuccessful. The Naval Historical Center even excluded the Oriskany from the list of inactive Navy ships eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

In the end, the Navy settled on a plan to convert the warship into an artificial reef, a project requiring over three years and $20 million to complete. Repeated conflicts with the EPA over hazardous substances such as oil, fuel, asbestos, and PCBs added to the delays and ultimate cost.

But on May 15, 2006, the Oriskany was finally towed from its berth at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, to complete its final mission.

The Great Carrier Reef

Hundreds of Oriskany veterans were on hand to bid her a final farewell. Denny Earl, a naval aviator serving with Attack Squadron 163 on the ship during the Vietnam War, chose a particularly spectacular way to say goodbye. Earl, now a contract pilot for the Navy responsible for navigator training, sought and received permission to fly a T-39 Sabreliner on approach to the Oriskany before it was scuttled. As he later told reporters, “I locked it up on radar, dropped down to 500 feet, and executed a carrier break at the bow.” For those who don’t know, this is the maneuver Tom Cruise’s character was supposed to have made at the beginning of Top Gun when he came back from his first combat mission.

Other Oriskany veterans observed the ceremony more sedately, ferried out to within one mile of the ship before the explosion.

The sinking itself was conducted according to a pre-approved engineering “sink plan.” Main sea chest piping within eight machinery spaces were breached by simultaneous explosions of small C4 explosive charges in 22 locations external to the ship. The timing of the explosion was controlled by a small “float-off” boat containing monitoring equipment used by the demolition team. In the extraordinary series of photographs taken by the Navy during the explosion and sinking, the “float-off” boat (www.irishmansoftware.com/Oriskany.htm) is clearly visible, and did not get sucked into a Titanic-style whirlpool, as Leonardo DiCaprio might have you believe.

A Navy team of dive specialists examined the wreckage several days later. The Oriskany remained intact and upright upon impact, and is now resting 212 feet below the surface as she begins her peacetime mission as the world’s largest artificial reef. She is expected to be a welcome refuge for marine life, sports divers, fisherman, and tourists, and will be a much-needed addition to the economy of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Some estimates even have her generating as much as $11 million annually in eco-tourism dollars for the region – a real-life example of turning swords into plowshares.

Bibliography

  • Sinking of the Oriskany, (http:www.irishmansoftware.com/Oriskany.htm)
  • USS Oriskany as a Reef (http://www.ussoriskany.com/id18.html)
  • The Reefing of the USS Oriskany(http:www.pensacolachamber.com/armedservices/ussoriskany.htm)
  • USS Oriskany becomes great carrier reef (http://www.cnn.com//2006/us/05/17/carrier.reef.ap/index.html)

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