Mighty O to Great Carrier Reef: Chronology of a Sunken Aircraft Carrier

Image by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jeffrey P. Kraus (U.S. Navy)

Image by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jeffrey P. Kraus (U.S. Navy)

On May 17, 2006 the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany was sunk off the coast of Florida, becoming the world’s largest artificial reef.  This article, including 41 photographs, examines Oriskany’s naval career from construction through the Vietnam War to her final fate as a haven for marine life and one of the world’s top wreck dive locations.

Oriskany is Launched

Images via U.S. Navy

Images via U.S. Navy

Oriskany was laid down on May 1, 1944 at the New York Naval Shipyard and finally commissioned in September 1950.  Conceived as a “long-hulled” Essex-class carrier, construction halted in 1947 to allow for design updates, which spearheaded the modernization of 14 other carriers of her class.  Because of this, some considered Oriskany to be in a class of her own – Ticonderoga class.  Displacing 30,800 tons of water, Oriskany earned the nickname Might O.

Korean and Vietnam Wars

Images via U.S. Navy

Images via U.S. Navy

Oriskany mainly operated in the Pacific Ocean, earning two battle stars during the Korean War and five for service in Vietnam.  In 1957 a major overhaul saw the fitting of a new angled flight deck, updated aircraft elevators, enclosed hurricane bow and powerful new steam catapults to replace older hydraulic ones.  The wooden deck was replaced with aluminium planking.  Between May 10 and December 6, 1965, Oriskany launched over 12,000 combat missions and delivered almost 10,000 tons of ordnance against the Viet Cong.

Deadly Fire

Image by U.S. Navy

Image by U.S. Navy

Disaster struck on October 26, 1966.  A magnesium parachute flare ignited accidentally and exploded in the weapons locker of Hangar Bay 1, beneath the carriers flight deck.  The horrific fire that ensued caused the deaths of 44 men, most of them veteran combat pilots who had flown raids over Vietnam only a few hours earlier.  The cause was found to be human error, although it transpired that one in every thousand flares could ignite accidentally if jarred.  Five crew members were cleared of any wrong-doing, and flares were redesigned to make them safer.

Accidents and Crashes

Top two images via U.S. Navy; bottom image by U.S. Air Force

Top two images via U.S. Navy; bottom image by U.S. Air Force

The Mighty O also witnessed its fair share of aircraft accidents throughout its tenure.  On October 26, 1967, then-Lieutenant Commander John McCain was shot down during his 23rd bombing mission of the Vietnam War, flying an A-4 Skyhawk (similar to the one pictured above, middle).

Patrolling the Skies

Image via U.S. Navy

Image via U.S. Navy

During the Cold War the Oriskany’s air wing intercepted Russian aircraft that got too close for comfort.  In this scene, a Vought F-8J Crusader  intercepts a Soviet Tupolev TU-95 Bear-A/B reconnaissance aircraft on May 25, 1974.  The Oriskany can clearly be seen steaming along in the background.

Supercarriers Together

Image via U.S. Navy

Image via U.S. Navy

The Oriskany may well have been “mighty”, but it looks pretty small compared to some of its younger counterparts like the massive USS Enterprise (right).  On the far left is the USS Coral Sea, and next to it the USS Hancock (both now scrapped).  Both the Hancock and the Oriskany were Essex-class carriers and thus roughly the same size, with Oriskany only marginally larger.  This images was captured at Naval Air Station Alameda, California, on July 4, 1974.  The Hancock was sold for scrap in 1976, and already looks like it’s been stripped of most useful parts.

Decommissioned and Prepared for Sinking

Images via U.S. Navy

Images via U.S. Navy

Oriskany was decommissioned in 1976 and slowly gutted of any useful parts.  Finally sold for scrap in 1995, she was repossessed due to lack of progress in 1997 and eventually towed to Pensacola, Florida.  After considerable environmental remediation work, Might O was deemed safe to sink as an artificial reef.  Pictured above nearing the end on April 17, 2006, technicians overlook the rusting hulk amid preparations to scuttled the carrier.  The final resting place was set to be the Gulf of Mexico, 22 miles south of Pensacola in approximately 212 feet of water.

Oriskany’s Final Voyage

Images via U.S. Navy

Images via U.S. Navy

One month later, on May 17, 2006, Oriskany was towed out of Pensacola on her final voyage.  A Navy explosives team rigged the carrier was approximately 500 lbs of C-4 explosive, strategically placed on 22 sea connection pipes in various parts of the ship.  Just 37 minutes after detonation, the massive ship slipped beneath the waves stern first, becoming the world’s largest artificial reef.

Oriskany Slips Beneath the Waves – a Massive Swell

Images via U.S. Navy

Images via U.S. Navy

All went according to plan and the ship came to rest upright on the ocean floor. The flight deck was at a depth of 135 feet but sank 10 feet deeper during Hurricane Gustav.  Accessible to recreational divers, Oriskany is now fondly known as the “Great Carrier Reef” in a nod to the popular Australian dive spot, and was named by the Times of London as one of the top ten wreck dives in the world.  The moment the Mighty O hit the ocean floor, ownership was transferred from the U.S. Navy to the State of Florida.

Great Carrier Reef

Image via U.S. Navy

Image via U.S. Navy

On July 6, 2007, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Kevin Armold was re-enlisted by Army Maj. Shean Phelps on the deck of the recently sunk USS Oriskany.  This was the first re-enlistment to be held on the sunken aircraft carrier.

Images by Gareth Richards

Images by Gareth Richards

Two years on, most of the surfaces on the Mighty O had become the domain of shells and sea urchins.  And in the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Carrier Reef is certain to boost Florida tourist numbers as divers from all over the world explore the historic decks, hangars and sunken corridors of this incredible ship.  USS Oriskany was also mentioned briefly in this previous article: Deep Blue Sea: Aircraft & Aircraft Carriers Lost Beneath the Waves.  It also received a mention in an article by Dark Roasted Blend.

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