Deck Landing Incidents
Since the inception of an aircraft carrier, its deck has always been an action-packed place. Planes were hauled from the hangar deck to the flight deck, fuel pumped, bombs armed and loaded on waiting aircraft. It's a world of heavy equipment and tightly choreographed activity as planes are readied for flight, launched, or stowed away after landing. It didn't matter if the weather was bad, the night was pitch black or the ship rolling in heavy seas. For the crews, decks were often wet and slippery. Ladders steep and unforgiving.
In an environment like this, disasters such as plane crashes, fires or personal injuries was an ever-present risk. Aircraft carrier landings have been called "controlled crashes," already in the 1940s. Aircraft could miss the wires, got damaged on abrupt landings, or ditch in the water.
Even early on, US aircraft carriers had a photographer on duty when receiving aircraft. He was usually perched on the top deck of the island structure - in the area named Vultures Row. Some say that pilots making a landing learned to take a quick look at the photographer. He never wasted a film or missed an accident. If he looked bored, the landing approach was OK. If he stood up the pilot had better do something quickly...
This is a set of photographs taken on such occasions, between the 1940s and 1970s. With two exceptions, I have selected incidents that, to the best of my knowledge, have not resulted in human casualties. However, many pictures show just how thin the line was.
Contrary to what might seem, the crashes were not an everyday
occurrence. USS Enterprise alone had completed over 16,OOOth landings
during its first three years of service, until 1941. However, it's the
accidents or near-accidents that inevitably received greatest attention
and etched themselves in the memories of the crews more than any successful
Dramatic deck landings
are just as old as carrier aviation itself. Here, Northrop BT-1
bomber of Bombing Squadron Five (VB-5) goes
into the starboard catwalk during a landing accident on USS Yorktown
(CV-5), circa 1940.
Devastator of Torpedo Squadron Five (VT-5) in the starboard catwalk
of USS Yorktown, 3 September 1940, following a landing accident.
Pilot was Electrician's Mate First Class (Naval Aviation Pilot) C.M.
O'Brien. The after end of the carrier's island is in the background.
Another Northrop BT-1
of Bombing Squadron Five's, plane number 5-B-16 ends up upside
down and sinking after going over the side of USS Yorktown during
flight operations in the Pacific, 23 July 1940. USS Perkins is seen
coming up at the right edge of the picture to rescue the plane's
crew, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Thomas D. Cummins (Pilot) and
Radioman Third Class Donald MacKillop.
Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo
fighter rests in the flight deck gallery walkway after suffering
landing gear failure while landing on board USS Long Island,
off Palmyra Island, 25 July 1942.
Another view of the
same F2A-3. Note marking "MF-5" on the plane's fuselage
and the very weathered paint.
VMF-211 was the last Navy or Marine Corps unit to operate the F2A in
a front-line capacity.
An SBD-3 scout
bomber, probably flown by the Bombing Squadron Three (VB-3)
Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Maxwell F. Leslie, ditches
alongside USS Astoria during the Battle of Midway, specifically at
13:48 hrs on 4 June 1942. This was one of two VB-3 planes that
ditched near Astoria after they were unable to land on the damaged
Gilberts Operation, 24
November 1943. Pilot evacuates his burning F6F-3 fighter
aboard USS Cowpens (CVL-25) after landing. The pilot was
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Alfred W. Magee, Jr., USNR. The fire
started as the Hellcat approached Cowpens for an emergency landing,
and the pilot was unaware of it until after touchdown. Firefighters
are seen here rushing to the plane. They put out the flames in a
minute and a half, with no casualties.
This photo illustrates
just how dangerous and fatal the landing accidents could be.
Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat goes over the side of USS Barnes
(CVE-20) on 22 October 1943, after the pilot attempted to regain
flying speed after receiving the "Cut" signal from the
Landing Signal Officer.
Another Hellcat in
trouble, which this time is about to receive a happier ending.
Not quite a deck
landing accident, but an interesting scene anyway. Vought OS2U
Kingfisher floatplane from USS North Carolina (BB-55) off Truk with
nine aviators on board, awaiting rescue by USS Tang, 1 May 1944. The
plane had landed inside Truk lagoon to recover downed airmen. Unable
to take off with such a load, it then taxiied out to USS Tang, which
was serving as lifeguard submarine during the 29 April-1 May carrier
strikes on Truk.
General Motors FM-2
Wildcat fighter (licence-built Grumman F4F Wildcat) comes to a most
spectacular standstill after a barrier crash on board USS Sable
(IX-81), during pilot training in the Great Lakes, May 1945.
Anatomy of the hit. General Motors TBM-3E
Avenger captured in the very moment of crash into the barrier while
landing on board USS Philippine Sea during operations in the Korean
war zone on 17 January 1951.
Introduction of heavy
jet aircraft to naval aviation in the 1950s additionally decreased
the landing safety margins.
their own variety of risks, like this Sikorski HO3S-1 helicopter of
squadron HU-1. It tipped over on the the forward flight deck, of USS
Philippine Sea on 9 January 1951.
USS Oriskany (CVA-34)
in the Gulf of Tonkin, 20 October 1967. Navy pilot Lieutenant
(Junior Grade) Denny Earl, with both legs shattered by North
Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire, successfully lands his A-4 "Skyhawk"
attack plane aboard the Oriskany.
Last in this photo album is the image of the greatest deck disasters of them all. It happened onboard USS Forrestal (CVA-59), in the Gulf of Tonkin, 29 July 1967.
It was just about 10:52 a.m., and the launch
that was scheduled for a short time later. Suddenly,
a Zuni rocket accidentally fired from
an F-4 Phantom parked on the starboard side of the flight deck aft
of the island. The missile streaked across the deck, amazingly
hitting directly into a 400 gallon belly fuel tank on a parked
A-4D Skyhawk. The ruptured tank spew highly flammable
JP-5 fuel onto the deck which ignited spreading flames over the
flight deck under other fully loaded aircraft. A bomb dropped to the deck and rolled
about six feet and came to rest in a pool of burning fuel.
The horrific conflagration which followed left
134 crewmen dead with 62 more injured.