Readying for War...
In the Atlantic Ocean
8 November 1998
The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise (CVN-65), left on its 16th overseas deployment, from the naval station at Norfolk, Virginia, on November 6th,1998, in support of Operation “Desert Fox” against Iraq. The families of those sailors aboard the super-carrier braved the cold weather as the vessel departed the dock to the classic tune of “On the Road Again” and the theme music from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Less than forty-eight hours, the joy of “Anchors Aweigh” would turn to panic as the crew of the historic ship would be engaged in search and rescue operations to find their fellow shipmates.
The ship spent the first days of the deployment off the coast of Virginia, taking on board the Carrier Air Wing Three (CVW-3), and qualifying them for flight status. On the night of November 8th, the carrier was re-qualifying (“carquals”) their aviators and deck crews for night operations.
Over a hundred mile off of the coastline, and late during the landing operations a S-3B Viking, naval bureau # 159733, and an anti-submarine warfare aircraft assigned to Sea Control Squadron 22 (VS-22 - the “Checkmates” - based at NAS Jacksonville, Florida), landed on the Enterprise's flight deck. At the flight controls was the squadron's leader, Commander James G. Wallace, 44, of Jacksonville, Florida, and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kirk A. Schneringer of Cardiff, California. Typical of the fast-paced tempo on a carrier's flight deck, another plane, a EA-6B Prowler, was slated to land on the flight deck in short order.
Dropping like a Rock...
The Prowler, a radar-jamming jet assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 130 (VAQ-130 - the "Zappers" - from NAS Whidbey Island, Washington), was quickly bearing down onto the landing zone. The carrier's Landing Signal Officer (LSO) recognized the potential hazard, and quickly declared a Fouled Deck, signaling a “go-around” to the Prowler.
Aviation Structural Mechanic John E. Little was on the USS Enterprise that night: "We were just changing over from day time ops, to night ops. I had just dipped below deck to change my goggle insert from tinted to a clear one. I was on the starboard side, towards the aft of the ship. I could hear the EA-6B on approach and almost at once I heard the EA-6B go to full power and then a big 'Clank' and 'Whoosh'."
As the jet powered up to retake to the night skies, it clipped the landed Viking, causing a large explosion and fireball on the carrier's deck.
Little recalled, "As I looked up the entire ship was orange from the fireball. At first everyone was confused as what to do because there were allot of aircraft with their engines still turning, and you can’t just run up on the deck. The plane captains were furiously trying to get their pilots shut down and out of their aircraft."
Both flight crews quickly ejected from the inferno, and the burning wreck of the Prowler was slung forward into the cold ocean water below. The ship sounded the “general quarters” alarm, and the crash & salvage team immediately responding to the blaze by applying of fire extinguishing foam within seconds of the collision, and brought the fires under control within seven minutes all together.
According to Little, "Once I was able to get to the back side of the island, I could see the fire crew battling the flames, I ran and jumped on the nearest AFFF hose and we took turns at the nozzle. The heat was so intense just standing there you felt like you were cooking. Our S-3 still had both engines running even after the pilots ejected and it had come to rest up against some F-18s that were badly damaged from the fire. One of our AD engine mechs got the door to the S-3 open and shut the aircraft down. After we moved the aircraft to the elevators we had to chip the molten aluminum off of the flight deck as there were aircraft stacked and ready to land."
Overall, the damage control teams were able to limit damage to other aircraft on the flight deck, and insure no one else was injured, although after the crew stood down from the alert, the forward battle dressing station remained available to those who suffered from minor wounds and burns.
Much to the surprise of the ship's crew, one of the ejected Viking crewmembers was quickly found, entangled by his parachute in the antennae complex of the carrier's command island (he earned a new callsign, "Swinger" for this distinction), the other crewman was found in the cold, choppy seas, and was quickly rescued. Both were rushed to the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Little described the aftermath, saying that, "the EA-6B basically folded in half after the struck our S-3, and the aircrew from the Prowler ejected into the rear fuselage of the aircraft. They never had a chance. We spent 2 or 3 days striping the S-3 before," it was jettisoned overboard into the sea
The crew of the Prowler, however, was less fortunate. All four aboard - Lieutenant Commander Kurt W. "Gumby" Barich, 35, of Oak Harbour, Washington, and Lieutenants – Junior Grade Brendan J. "Duff" Duffy, 27, of Annapolis, Maryland; Charles E. "Woody" Woodward, 26, of Herndon, Virginia; and Meredith C. "Pop" Loughran, 26, of Sanston, Virginia; were all lost overboard. In the search, the body of LtJG Duffy was found that night.
But even with the assistance of two other Navy ships operating near the Enterprise, the destroyer USS Gonzalez and the frigate USS Nicholas, in the search, along with HH-60 helicopters from Antisubmarine Squadron 7 based in Jacksonville, the remaining three were not found. After covering more than 100 square nautical miles on the water, and 700 nautical miles in the air, the search was suspended after 24 hours. The three missing were presumed dead in the 58 degrees waters.
Spiraling Out of Control...
The crew of the Enterprise held a memorial service for their fallen shipmates in hangar bay 1 at 0800 on the 11th. The following day, the Enterprise received orders to proceed at “best speed” to the Arabian Gulf in response to a growing situation in the Middle East regarding Iraq. Following a high-speed Atlantic transit, on November 23rd, the carrier entered the Strait of Hormuz, relieving the carrier U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69).
Little recounted, "That was a bad deployment, as a couple of months later the Enterprise had a major fire in the aft of the ship near a garbage incinerator. We almost lost her twice. The memorial in the hangar bay was very emotional, it was hard to watch."
In accordance with Navy policy, every landing on an aircraft carrier's flight deck is recorded, for training and investigative purposes. The Pilot Landing Aid Television tape, or 'PLATtape' as it is called, from this collision, was released by the Naval Safety Center after the conclusion of the accident investigation.