USS Enterprise fire

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

USS Enterprise fire
USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burning, stern view
Fire on the stern of USS Enterprise
DateJanuary 14, 1969
TimeAbout 8:18 a.m. local time
LocationPacific Ocean, about 70 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii 20°27′7″N 158°27′5″W / 20.45194°N 158.45139°W / 20.45194; -158.45139
28 dead, 314 injured
15 aircraft destroyed
cost to USN over US$126 million

The 1969 USS Enterprise fire was a major fire and series of explosions that broke out aboard USS Enterprise on January 14, 1969, off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The fire started when a Zuni rocket detonated under a plane's wing. It spread as more munitions exploded, blowing holes in the flight deck that allowed burning jet fuel to enter the ship. 28 sailors were killed, 314 were injured, 15 aircraft were destroyed, and the total cost of aircraft replacement and shipboard repair was over $126 million.[1] The damage was lessened somewhat by improvements made after the similar 1967 USS Forrestal fire.


USS Enterprise, built between 1958 and 1961, was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.[2] Her enormous construction cost caused the cancellation of the five other carriers planned for the class, so many of her features were unique.[3]

Enterprise departed Alameda, California, on January 6, 1969, for her fourth deployment to Vietnam and her eighth deployment overall.[4] On January 14, the ship was off the coast of Hawaii conducting a final battle drill and Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) before steaming for Vietnam.[5][6] Additional personnel were aboard Enterprise to observe the ORI.[6]


Sailors from the destroyer Rogers use their hoses to help fight fires aboard Enterprise.

About 8:18 a.m., Enterprise was turning to port to conduct flight operations. On the stern sat a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II armed with Zuni rockets. The exhaust from an MD-3A "Huffer", a tractor-mounted unit used to start aircraft, heated one of the Zunis until it exploded, detonating its 15-pound (6.8 kg) warhead of Composition B explosive.[1][7] The explosion perforated the aircraft's fuel cells and ignited the leaking JP-5 jet fuel. About one minute later, three more Zuni rockets exploded; these blasts blew holes into the flight deck, allowing the burning jet fuel to pour into the level below.[1] Captain Kent Lee, commanding officer of Enterprise, directed the port turn to continue after the first explosion, steering the ship into the wind to blow smoke away from the ship.[8]

About three minutes after the initial explosion, a bomb exploded on the burning Phantom, blowing a hole in the flight deck that measured about 8 by 7 feet (2.4 by 2.1 m). The heat ignited additional fires on the lower level, and debris caused holes in the deck which allowed burning fuel to spread farther, entering the two lower levels and eventually the first deck. This explosion also severed nearby firehoses and damaged and rendered inoperable the twin-agent units that provided firefighting foam to the area. Two 500 lb (227 kg) Mark 82 bombs soon detonated in succession. Several minutes after those detonations, a bomb rack exploded with three Mk 82 bombs. This blast tore a hole into the flight deck about 18 by 22 feet (5.5 by 6.7 m) in diameter and ruptured a 6,000-US-gallon (23,000 l; 5,000 imp gal) fuel tank mounted on a tanker aircraft; the ensuing fireball spread the fire farther. A total of 18 explosions occurred, blowing eight holes into the flight deck and beyond.[1]

The nuclear-powered cruiser Bainbridge and destroyer Rogers came to the stricken carrier's aid.[9] It took the combined crews of the three ships about four hours to extinguish the fires.[8]


Bainbridge escorted Enterprise to Pearl Harbor that afternoon. After 51 days of repairs,[9] Enterprise continued on her regularly scheduled deployment.[7][8] The carrier returned to Alameda on July 2, 1969.[4]

This was the last of three major fires to befall U.S. aircraft carriers in the 1960s. It followed a fire aboard USS Oriskany on October 26, 1966, that killed 44 sailors and injured 156 more; and a fire aboard USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, that killed 134 sailors and injured 161. The Forrestal fire was started by a Zuni rocket which was accidentally launched into parked aircraft by a power surge, igniting a fuel fire that began to "cook off" 1,000-pound (454 kg) bombs.


A JAG Manual investigation began immediately after the fire, in accordance with Navy policy. The investigation determined that the initial explosion was caused by the huffer exhaust overheating the Zuni rocket.[6] Investigators also determined that an airman had observed the exhaust and had raised concerns about the placement of the huffer, but personnel were involved in other tasks and may not have completely understood what was being said due to the ambient noise on the flight deck. However, the investigators also noted that moving the unit might not have prevented the initial explosion due to the estimated temperature of the rocket by that time.[6] The investigation also revealed that flight deck personnel did not have an understanding of ordnance cook-off times or an appreciation of the hazards posed by live ordnance on the flight deck.

The Forrestal investigation revealed that only half of the ship's crew and none of the air wing had attended firefighting school. When the Enterprise fire erupted, 96 percent of the ship's crew had attended firefighting training, along with 86 percent of the air wing.[10] Lack of redundancies in communication systems and firefighting components were deemed to have hurt firefighting operations. Further factors included a lack of communication between the Air Boss (who was responsible for flight and hangar deck firefighting) and the Damage Control Assistant (who was responsible for all other firefighting operations), and overloading the firefighting system by activating multiple systems at once.[6]

Investigators generally praised the firefighting operation aboard Enterprise. Specific praise was given to the medical department, who were credited with saving countless lives, and to the establishment of a damage-control training team that helped with damage-control training. Enterprise had also established a competitive program between its repair parties to increase effectiveness.[10] Praise was also directed to the captain of USS Rogers, who navigated his ship within feet of Enterprise to aid firefighting efforts.[6]

The investigators recommended a redesign of the air-start unit to vent the exhaust upward instead of to the side. They also recommended educating flight deck personnel on ordnance cook-off temperatures and times, and increasing the length of the hose that delivers the air from the huffer to the aircraft.[6] Other recommendations included: install redundant communication and control systems, improve communication between key senior personnel, and redesign the head covering worn by flight deck firefighters. Investigators also recommended cross-training shipboard dentists as anesthetists, as one had been assigned to Enterprise which allowed the medical department to perform additional emergency surgery during the fire.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d "The USS ENTERPRISE (CVAN-65) fire and munition explosions". Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  2. ^ USS Enterprise Turns 49 Years Old Thanksgiving Day, US: Navy
  3. ^ Jane's American fighting ships of the 20th century, p. 89. New York: Mallard Press, 1991. ISBN 0-7924-5626-2.
  4. ^ a b "Deployments of USS Enterprise". Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  5. ^ Martin, David. "Tragedy remembered as USS Enterprise is retired". CBS News. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "USS Enterprise fire" (PDF). JAG Manual Investigations. United States Navy. Retrieved August 15, 2014.
  7. ^ a b "Explosions Rocks USS Enterprise". This Day in History. History Channel. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Galito, Jacob. "Enterprise Remembers 1969 Fire". United States Navy. USS Enterprise Public Affairs. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  9. ^ a b "Fire on the Flightdeck". Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  10. ^ a b The Impact of the USS Forrestal's 1967 fire on United States Navy Shipboard Damage Control, Thesis, Henry P. Stewart, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1992.