USS America: The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier? It was 110 years ago this past April 15 that the unsinkable RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and in less than three hours sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Several World War II warships earned the distinction of being “unsinkable” as well – most notably the United States Navy’s USS Nevada (BB-36), the battleship that served in two World Wars, survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and wasn’t even sunk by a nuclear blast!
Then there was the USS America (CVA/CV-66), one of three Kitty Hawk-class supercarriers built for the United States Navy in the 1960s. The conventionally powered warship was built at the Newport News Shipbuilding Co., Newport News, Virginia, and initially commissioned as an attack aircraft carrier. After being commissioned in 1965, she spent most of her career in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, but did make three Pacific deployments during the Vietnam War. In 1975, America was designated as a multi-purpose aircraft carrier CV-66, and in that role, she took part in combat operations in the Persian Gulf during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Among her later deployments were with the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) as part of Operation Uphold Democracy, the military September 1994 intervention to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup d’état that overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Both flattops were deployed with a large contingent of U.S. Army helicopters but no air wings.
A year later, USS America was deployed as part of Operation Deny Flight and Operation Deliberate Force, in association with the UN and NATO, and also took part in missions in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. She then made a port-of-call visit to Valletta, Malta in January 1996, becoming the first U.S. Navy carrier to visit the historical port in nearly a quarter of a century.
Career Cut Short
USS America was originally scheduled to undergo a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) in 1996 for subsequent retirement in 2010, but with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the supercarrier fell victim to budget cuts. Her career was cut short, and she was subsequently decommissioned in a ceremony at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia on August 9, 1996.
There had been calls to see her preserved as a museum ship, but she was in bad shape and given the state of the warship, USS America was instead used as a naval target during a classified SinkEx in 2005.
Then-Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John B. Nathman explained, “America will make one final and vital contribution to our national defense, this time as a live-fire test and evaluation platform. America’s legacy will serve as a footprint in the design of future carriers – ships that will protect the sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of America veterans. We will conduct a variety of comprehensive tests above and below the waterline collecting data for use by naval architects and engineers in creating the nation’s future carrier fleet. It is essential we make those ships as highly survivable as possible. When that mission is complete, the America will slip quietly beneath the sea. I know America has a very special place in your hearts, not only for the name, but also for your service aboard her. I ask that you understand why we selected this ship for this one last crucial mission and make note of the critical nature of her final service.”
She was the first large aircraft carrier since Operation Crossroads in 1946 to be expended in a weapons test, and she remains the only supercarrier to have been sunk – but it wasn’t exactly easy. She was moved to a position about 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Cape Hattera. Over the course of four weeks beginning in late April 2005, the U.S. Navy tested America with underwater explosives, which were designed to simulate underwater attacks, and monitor from afar via devices placed on the vessel.
While she lacked the armor of past battleships, the supercarrier was significantly larger in size, and was equipped with a double-layered hull. In addition, her internal compartmentalization was far better than the World War II battle wagons. The carrier was simply able to absorb more damage than older warships. The tests helped the U.S. Navy determine how a modern supercarrier would stand up to attack, and what was learned was used to aid in the design of future carriers including the then still-in-development Gerald R. Ford-class.
While not truly “unsinkable,” it was good to know that the America wouldn’t go down so easily – unlike a certain Russia cruiser that recently was so easily sunk in the Black Sea.
Bonus Photo Essay: Meet the Gerald R. Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier
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Now a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.