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USS Enterprise fire

USS Enterprise fire
USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burning, stern view
Fire on the stern of USS Enterprise,
January 14, 1969
DateJanuary 14, 1969
TimeAbout 8:18 a.m. local time
LocationPacific Ocean, approximately 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 broke out after a Zuni rocket detonated attached to an aircraft, and spread following further rocket and bomb explosions which blew holes in the flight deck and allowed burning jet fuel to enter the ship's interior. 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 closely related 1967 USS Forrestal fire preceded the Enterprise fire by 18 months, but a number of improvements in the wake of the Forrestal tragedy helped to reduce the damage.


USS Enterprise was built between 1958 and 1961 and 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 on January 6, 1969 for her fourth deployment to Vietnam and her eighth deployment overall.[4] The ship was off the coast of Hawaii at the time of the fire, 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 on-board hoses to assist with the firefighting efforts aboard Enterprise.

At approximately 8:18 a.m., Enterprise was turning to port to conduct flight operations when a Zuni rocket exploded, equipped with a 15-pound (6.8 kg) warhead of Composition B explosive and mounted on a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II that was parked on the stern. The rocket had been heated by the exhaust from an MD-3A "Huffer", a tractor-mounted unit used to start aircraft.[1][7] The explosion perforated the aircraft's fuel cells and ignited the leaking JP-5 jet fuel. Three additional Zuni rockets exploded about a minute later, and 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]

A bomb exploded on the Phantom approximately three minutes after the initial explosion, having been engulfed in flames from the earlier explosions and burning fuel. This explosion blew a hole in the flight deck that was approximately 8 by 7 feet (2.4 by 2.1 m) in diameter. The heat from the blast 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 damaged the twin-agent units that provided firefighting foam to the area, rendering them inoperable as well as severing fire hoses in the area. In short order, two 500 lb (227 kg) Mark 82 bombs 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 approximately 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; a massive fireball resulted from the fuel igniting, spreading 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 during the fire,[9] and the crews were able to extinguish the fires within four hours, despite the damage and the loss of the twin-agent units.[8]


Bainbridge escorted Enterprise to Pearl Harbor that afternoon, where the ship underwent repairs which took 51 days,[9] after which she continued on her regularly scheduled deployment.[7][8] Enterprise 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. A fire aboard USS Oriskany on October 26, 1966 killed 44 sailors and injured 156 more, and a fire aboard USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967 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) bomb ordnance.


A JAG Manual investigation commenced immediately after the fire, in accordance with Navy policy. The investigation determined that the initial explosion was caused by overheating of the Zuni rocket by the huffer exhaust.[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 investigation further revealed that only 50 percent of the ship's crew and none of the air wing had attended firefighting school. Qualified firefighters had been casualties in the Forrestal accident, and untrained individuals had taken their place. 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 a negative effect on 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 permit the exhaust to be blown upward instead of to the side. They also recommended educating flight deck personnel on ordnance cook-off temperatures and times, as well as a longer huffer air supply hose, which delivers the air needed to start aircraft.[6] Many other recommendations were made, including installation of redundant communication and control systems, improved communication between key senior personnel, and a redesign of 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 gave the medical department the ability 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.

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