Published on January 6, 2014.

Looking Back - January / February 2014

ON THE MORNING OF JULY 29, 1967, an alert went out across the USS Forrestal: “General quarters. This is not a drill.”

A fire had broken out on the flight deck of the Forrestal, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the coast of North Vietnam. Two aircraft had just taken off when an armed Zuni rocket accidentally launched from an F-4 Phantom fighter, striking an A-4E Skyhawk jet that was waiting to take off on the port side of the ship. According to the ship’s log, fuel began leaking from the plane’s center line fuel tank, and the tank erupted at 10:52 a.m.

The impact also dislodged a 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) bomb from the Skyhawk. The bomb rolled into the fire and exploded a minute and 26 seconds later, killing the flight deck chief and a number of first responders trying to get fire hoses into position. Within seconds, two more 1,000-pound bombs exploded, and a fourth exploded 42 seconds after that. Within the first five minutes of the incident, nine major explosions took place on the flight deck.

Lieutenant David Clement, the pilot of a helicopter stationed aboard the carrier USS Oriskany, which was part of the Forrestal’s Attack Carrier Group, described the horrendous explosions in the October 1967 issue of Naval Aviation News.

“It seemed as if the whole stern of the Forrestal had erupted,” he said. “Suddenly, there were rafts, fuel tanks, oxygen tanks, trop tanks, and debris of every description floating in the water below.” The aft end of the ship was “a mass of twisted steel, with holes in the flight deck, a vacant space where there had been many aircraft, and a towering column of black and grey smoke and flames.”

By 11:08 a.m., the explosions had stopped, and the crew began moving the aircraft away from the carrier’s command center. Captain John Beling ordered all badly damaged aircraft to be pushed overboard at 11:24 a.m.

The fire on the flight deck was not the only problem, however. Burning aircraft and 40,000 gallons (151,416 liters) of flaming fuel dropping through the holes in the flight deck spread the blaze below decks. Although the conflagration on the flight deck was extinguished by 12:15 p.m., fires continued to burn throughout the ship until the following day. By then, 134 of the Forrestal’s 5,000 crew members had died, and 161 were injured, 64 of them severely. It was the worst fire on a U.S. aircraft since the Second World War.

— Kathleen Robinson