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USS America: The Navy Had a Plan to Sink Its Own Aircraft Carrier

At 11:30 am on May 14, 2005, the aircraft carrier USS America slipped beneath the waves and sank, for nearly three miles, before coming to rest upright, in one piece, upon the Atlantic floor. For the veterans who served on the America viewed the sinking as a solemn moment. But the previous crews could take pride in the America’s exit: she had been intentionally scuttled, in an experiment to gauge how carriers respond to enemy attacks, gleaning invaluable defensive data in her sacrifice.

The USS America (CV-66) was one of three Kitty Hawk-class carriers built in the 1960s. The Kitty Hawk-class of carriers was seen as an incremental improvement from the preceding Forrestal-class; the Kitty Hawks were a transitional batch of carriers. The America, nicknamed “The Big A,” was commissioned in 1965 and served until 1996. 

Building the USS America of the Kitty Hawk-Class

When first ordered, America was planned to house a nuclear power plant. Yet, rising costs resulted in an alteration, mid-construction; the America would be conventionally powered, with four steam turbines producing 280,000 horsepower. The finished America measured 1,048 feet long with a 248-foot beam. The massive ship could reach 34 knots. Over 4,600 men were required to operate the carrier and her roughly 80 airplanes. 

The Career of the USS America

America spent the majority of her career sailing the Atlantic and Mediterranean, although she was deployed to the Pacific on three occasions – all in support of the Vietnam War. The three decades for which the America served were relatively action-packed; the America loitered nearby, or participated directly, in several conflicts, including the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War, Operation El Dorado Canyon, and Operation Desert Storm. By the 1990s, more advanced, nuclear-powered carriers had long since become the norm; America was growing obsolete. Still, the U.S. Navy felt America had some more to contribute and she was scheduled to undergo a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), which would push her service life out until 2010. However, budget cuts forced the America into retirement. America was decommissioned in a ceremony at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1996 before being transferred to the Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And that’s when things got really interesting. 

Life-Fire Tests Give America a Noble End

Initially, the America was scheduled to be scrapped for parts. That didn’t happen. Instead, America was selected for a live-fire test – a test that would result in her sinking. Navy veterans who had served on the America protested: you can’t sink a ship named after the U.S.A.! The Navy disagreed. Make the ship in a museum, the veterans pleaded. The Navy stood firm. The then-Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John B. Nathman, wrote a letter to America’s veterans, explaining the decision.

America will make one final and vital contribution to our national defense, this time as a live-fire test and evaluation platform. America’s legacy will serve as a footprint in the design of future carriers – ships that will protect the sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of America veterans. We will conduct a variety of comprehensive tests above and below the waterline collecting data for use by naval architects and engineers in creating the nation’s future carrier fleet. It is essential we make those ships as highly survivable as possible. When that mission is complete, the America will slip quietly beneath the sea. I know America has a very special place in your hearts, not only for the name, but also for your service aboard her. I ask that you understand why we selected this ship for this one last crucial mission and make note of the critical nature of her final service,” Adm. Nathman wrote. The decision was final.

On February 25, 2005, a funeral-like ceremony was held in Philadelphia to salute America and her crew. With the goodbyes concluded, America sailed for the open ocean. On April 19, the live-fire tests commenced. The America proved to be a rather tough ship. For four weeks, the Navy punished America. Still, she wouldn’t sink. To scuttle America, she actually had to be boarded. 

“It took four weeks and they ended up having to scuttle her from on board due to her not sinking,” mechanical engineer Blake Horner is quoted in theaviationgeekclub.com. “She is not only far larger than WWII battleships, but she is also a lot tougher. While she does not have the heavy armor battleships of yore had, she does have a double layered hull, meaning weapons have to push through alternative layers of steel and empty pockets to reach her internals. On top of that, her internal compartmentalization was far better than that of battleships. She is so large, there are so many more rooms that must be filled in order to make her sink than that of a battleship.” 

When the America finally did slip beneath the waves, at approximately 11:30am EST, the Navy held a solemn moment of silence. America drifted downward for miles, finally coming to rest in one piece 16,860 feet below the surface, somewhere southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. 

Bonus: Aircraft Carrier Photo Essay

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ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 4, 2020) The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier have operated together underway. Gerald R. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains at sea in the Atlantic Ocean as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ruben Reed/Released

Aircraft Carrier

ARABIAN SEA (May 24, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Arabian Sea. Abraham Lincoln is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda L. Kilpatrick/Released)

Aircraft Carriers

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Aerial overhead view of US Navy (USN) Sailors aboard the USN Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CVN 72) spelling out RIMPAC 2006 on the flight deck of the ship during a photo exercise during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006 in the Pacific Ocean (POC). The exercise is designed to increase the tactical proficiency of participating units in a wide array of combined sea operations. RIMPAC 2006 brings together military forces from Australia (AUS), Canada (CAN), Chile (CHL), Peru (PER), Japan (JPN), the Republic of Korea (KOR), United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US).
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman James R. Evans (RELEASED)

Aircraft Carrier

American Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman is pictured during flying operations in the company of HMS Somerset in the Mediterranean. HMS Somerset was perforing anti-submarine duties for the immense vessel at the the time.

US Navy F-35C

220102-N-RU001-1083 PHILIPPINE SEA (Jan. 2, 2022) An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, recovers on the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Jan. 2, 2022. Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability through alliances and partnerships while serving as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Micheal Mensah)

Aircraft Carriers

The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo/

Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carrier

A (Feb. 5, 2021) An F/A-18E Super Hornet, from the “Kestrels” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137, rests on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during a strait transit. Nimitz is part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and is deployed conducting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)

China

Explosive Ordnance Disposal 1st Class Christopher Courtney assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Six (EODMU-6), Det. 16 assist his team members during Special Purpose Insertion Extraction (SPIE) training from an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) is deployed in support of Maritime Security Operations (MSO) and the global war on terrorism.

U.S. Navy

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U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Jan. 5, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) operates in the Arabian Sea during sunset. John C. Stennis is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Yeoman 3rd Class James Stahl/Released)

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

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