The fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) on January 14, 1969, remains one of the most significant naval disasters in U.S. history and was a defining moment for improvements in damage control and fire fighting on U.S. Navy ships.

A devastating fire and series of explosions erupted aboard the USS Enterprise on January 14, 1969, while it was situated off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, marking a significant incident known as the 1969 USS Enterprise fire.

The catastrophe initiated when a Zuni rocket accidentally detonated beneath the wing of an aircraft.

The ensuing fire proliferated as additional munitions were ignited, causing destructive breaches in the flight deck, which permitted flaming jet fuel to infiltrate the ship’s interiors.

This incident led to the tragic loss of 28 sailors and inflicted injuries on 314 others, with 15 aircraft obliterated.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 14 June 2004

The ensuing aircraft replacements and repairs to the ship accrued costs exceeding $126 million, equivalent to approximately $1.017 billion in 2023 when adjusted for inflation.

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The repercussions of this disaster were mitigated to an extent due to enhancements incorporated following the analogous USS Forrestal fire in 1967.

Contents

Operational Readiness Inspection

Constructed between 1958 and 1961, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) held the distinction of being the world’s inaugural nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Enterprise during an underway replenishment with the fleet oiler Hassayampa in the South China Sea in 1973.

The substantial expenses incurred during its construction led to the abandonment of plans for five additional carriers intended to belong to the same class.

Embarking on its fourth deployment to Vietnam and eighth overall, Enterprise left Alameda, California, on January 6, 1969.

By January 14, the vessel was positioned off the Hawaiian coast, executing a concluding battle exercise and Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) in preparation for its journey to Vietnam.

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During this time, Enterprise hosted extra personnel on board assigned to observe the operational readiness.

On the morning of January 14, 1969, the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65), a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was stationed approximately 70 nautical miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The carrier was in the process of preparing for an 0830 launch, which included six F-4 Phantom II fighters, seven A-7 Corsair II light attack jets, one RA-5C Vigilante photo-reconnaissance aircraft, one EKA-3B tanker, and one E-2A Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, all part of Air Wing NINE (CVW-9).

At 0818

This launch was scheduled as the concluding battle drill on the final day of an operational readiness inspection (ORI), as part of the preparations for Enterprise’s fourth tour to Vietnam and its eighth deployment in total.

The commencement of flight operations had taken place at 0630 on that day.

Black smoke rises from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65)

At 0818, as USS Enterprise initiated a portward turn into the wind, a blast occurred on the port quarter of the flight deck, outside the designated landing area.

The incident was traced back to an MD-3A aircraft starter unit (“huffer”), which had been placed in such a way that its heated exhaust was directed onto the warhead of a MK-32 5-inch Zuni rocket.

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This particular warhead was part of a four-rocket pod, situated on the starboard wing (No. 8 station) of an F-4J Phantom II No. 105, under Fighter Squadron NINETY-SIX (VF-96).

The exhaust emitted by the huffer could attain temperatures of 590 degrees Fahrenheit at a range of two feet, whereas a temperature of merely 358 degrees was enough to induce a cook-off of the warhead in roughly one minute and 18 seconds, as was uncovered by the subsequent investigation.

Additionally, the aircraft was outfitted with two wing fuel tanks—with one located on the starboard wing, external to the Zuni rockets—and was armed with six MK 82 500-pound bombs.

Warnings Unheard

Sailors aboard Enterprise battle a huge ordnance fire triggered by a Zuni rocket. 14 January 1969

On the morning of the incident, a junior airman apprentice tried to signal the imminent danger, but amid the clamor of jet engines, his warnings were either misinterpreted or unheard.

The ensuing investigation revealed that even if heeded, the warning likely came too late.

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The explosion of the Zuni warhead sent shrapnel into the external fuel tanks, igniting a JP-5 fuel fire.

Within a minute, the other Zuni rockets on F-4J No. 105 detonated, creating openings in the flight deck through which burning fuel penetrated to the O-3 level.

Enterprise’s commanding officer, Captain Kent Lee, quickly maneuvered the ship to ensure the wind directed the smoke and flames away from the flight deck.

However, three minutes later, a bomb on a Phantom detonated, creating a larger breach in the flight deck and allowing fire to spread to lower levels of the ship.

Majority of Casualties

This explosion also damaged fire-fighting equipment, followed by several other explosions that created substantial damage.

USS ENTERPRISE (CVAN-65) 15 January 1969. Fire and munition explosions. USS ROGERS (DD 876) helping contain the fire. U.S. Navy photo

The first explosion instantly claimed the life of Airman John R. Webster, the huffer driver; LTJG Buddy Pyeatt and LTJG Jim Berry also succumbed to their injuries.

Many who rushed to contain the fire fell victim to the second explosion, with the majority of casualties being flight deck maintenance personnel and those from ship’s V1 Division.

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USS Rogers and USS Bainbridge played crucial roles in controlling the fire and rescuing crew members, respectively.

Notably, the majority of Enterprise’s crew had received formal firefighting training, a reflection of the lessons learned from the Forrestal fire, unlike the previous incidents on other carriers where the crews were largely untrained, leading to significant losses.

The fire led to redesigning the huffer to vent the hot exhaust upwards and instigated extensive revisions in carrier damage control and firefighting strategies.

The Aftermath

USS Bainbridge escorted Enterprise to Pearl Harbor in the afternoon of the fire. Following 51 days of extensive repairs, Enterprise resumed its planned deployment and made its return to Alameda on July 2, 1969.

Fire damage onboard, January 14, 1969. Photographed by PH2 Stanley C. Wyckoff. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives

This marked the conclusion of a trilogy of severe fires on U.S. aircraft carriers during the 1960s.

It came after the blaze on USS Oriskany on October 26, 1966, which claimed the lives of 44 sailors and wounded 156; and the inferno on USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, which resulted in 134 deaths and 161 injuries.

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The fire on the Forrestal was similarly initiated by an inadvertently fired Zuni rocket due to a surge in power, sparking a fuel fire that led to the explosion of 1,000-pound bombs.

The refined procedures implemented after the Forrestal disaster significantly diminished the damage and casualties in the fire on the Enterprise.

JAG Manual investigation 

An investigation as per the JAG Manual was promptly initiated post the inferno, aligning with naval protocols.

The examination concluded that the huffer exhaust’s overheating of the Zuni rocket had led to the initial blast. It was also found that an airman had noticed the exhaust and had expressed worries about the huffer’s positioning.

However, his concerns were possibly overshadowed by other ongoing tasks and the prevalent noise on the flight deck.

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Regardless, the probe also indicated that relocating the unit may not have avoided the initial detonation considering the estimated rocket temperature by then.

It was revealed that there was a lack of knowledge among the flight deck crew regarding the cook-off times of ordnance and the risks associated with live ordnance on the flight deck.

In contrast to the Forrestal’s crew, 96% of the Enterprise’s crew and 86% of the air wing had received firefighting training when the fire broke out.

However, deficiencies in communication systems and firefighting equipment were found to have impeded firefighting efforts.

Commended by the Investigators

Other shortcomings included poor communication between the Air Boss and the Damage Control Assistant and overtasking the firefighting system by engaging multiple systems simultaneously.

Nevertheless, the firefighting efforts on the Enterprise were largely commended by the investigators, with specific acknowledgment to the medical department and the establishment of a damage-control training team, which were pivotal in saving numerous lives and enhancing damage-control training, respectively.

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Additionally, the captain of USS Rogers received commendation for bringing his ship extremely close to the Enterprise to support the firefighting operations.

The probing team advised a reconfiguration of the air-start unit to redirect the exhaust upwards and proposed educating the flight deck crew on ordnance cook-off temperatures and times, alongside extending the hose delivering air from the huffer to the aircraft.

Additional suggestions encompassed the installation of backup communication and control systems, bolstering communication between key personnel, and modifying the headgear for flight deck firefighters.

It was also recommended to cross-train dentists on board as anesthetists to facilitate more emergency surgeries during such disasters, an approach that proved beneficial during the Enterprise incident.

Who Dеstroyеd thе USS Entеrprisе?

Thе USS Entеrprisе (CVN-65) was not dеstroyеd but rathеr dеcommissionеd aftеr its dеcadеs of sеrvicе. Thе ship, a nuclеar-powеrеd aircraft carriеr, was in sеrvicе from 1961 to 2017, sеrving in various missions. Thеsе includеd thе Viеtnam War and Opеration Enduring Frееdom. Aftеr bеing in sеrvicе for ovеr 50 yеars, thе USS Entеrprisе was dеcommissionеd in 2017, marking thе еnd of an illustrious еra in naval history.

The fire destroyed 15 aircraft, and the resulting damage forced Enterprise to put in for repairs at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, Hawaii.
Praise for Medical Department: The medical department of the USS Enterprise received special commendation for saving countless lives during the fire.

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Cause: The fire was initiated by the accidental detonation of a Zuni rocket warhead, heated by the exhaust of a nearby MD-3A aircraft starter unit (“huffer”).
Fire damage onboard, January 14, 1969. Photographed by PH2 Stanley C. Wyckoff. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives