You’ve heard of carrier-killing anti-ship missiles from China that are a major threat to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, but sometimes the floating airports are menaced by geographic features close to shore. In 1985, the nuclear USS Enterprise nearly sank after crashing into a shallow seamount. The collision caused a 60-foot gash that damaged three propellors and took out the port keel. Let’s examine this story in more detail as one of the Navy’s most famous carriers nearly sank.
USS Enterprise: What Happened?
In 1985, the Enterprise was operating in the southern California area of operations for readiness exercises. While steaming 100 miles south-southwest of San Diego near Cortes Bank, on November 2, 1985, the Enterprise struck a portion of the 13-mile-long Bishop Rock that damaged its hull. The crew “counter-flooded the void and controlled the flooding,” according to Seaforces.org’s account of the incident. But the number one screw was smashed, and two others were damaged. There was also a short-term loss of 24 JP-5 fuel storage tanks.
Brave Divers Assessed the Damage
The damage required repairs that needed a drydock quickly. Enterprise anchored in San Francisco Bay before moving to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Then more thorough damage assessment was conducted on board to inspect the wreckage. Divers went down 25 times in actions that required 400 man-hours to assess the destruction.
Captain’s Attention Was on the Aircraft
In the recount of the events leading to the mishap, it is reported that the captain of the ship Robert L. Leuschner was encountering a difficult cruise. The carrier’s air group was conducting attack and bombing simulations and the airplanes were having a difficult time hitting the targets and additional planes were landing and taking off quickly.
Captain and Crew Was Distracted
Task and Purpose described what happened next. “The navigator alerted him to the proximity of Cortes Bank and plotted a course correction. At that time Captain Leuschner was distracted by what turned out to be a false report of a gunman below decks. During the precious moments when communications and awareness were tied up, no one noticed the carrier’s approach to the bank.” Leuschner was later relieved after the wreck caused $17 million in damage.
Quick History of the Enterprise
The Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered carrier, was introduced in 1960. It was considered ahead of its time due to the new technology of the reactor. Most of the Enterprise’s service was valiant during the Vietnam War, but the ship did endure a tragic fire that killed 27 sailors and injured 314 in 1969. It also ran aground heading to a port outside of San Francisco in 1983.
The Moments Leading Up to the Crash Are Mysterious
The Navy should be commended for righting the ship after the collision and getting it to dry dock. The divers bravely did their jobs. Questions do remain. What was the situation below decks that distracted the captain and sailors on the bridge? This was reportedly a gunman. That sounds mysterious and even far-fetched. But the false alarm was enough to remove the sailors’ attention from the task at hand – keeping the ship safe at all times.
It’s not clear what kind of investigation the Navy conducted into this crash, but the Enterprise was lucky it wasn’t worse. This should be a lesson learned by the Americans that has applications today in the East and South China Sea where the Chinese Navy is also patrolling. Dealing with rival ships can be a distraction and the U.S. Navy will need to avoid further mishaps that can damage their ships when sailing in contested waters.
Bonus: USS Enterprise Photo Essay
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.