More than 10 million dollars over budget and close to a year overdue, the monumental undertaking is finally underway! By the time you read this, there’s a good chance the USS Oriskany is resting peacefully on the bottom in 212 feet of water, 22.5 miles southeast of Pensacola…
The USS Oriskany was designed to take U.S. Naval aviation from the propeller warplanes of World War II into the jet aircraft of the Atomic Age. Built at New York Naval Shipyard in 1945, the “Mighty O” served in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and was the posting for such notable naval aviators as Senator John McCain. At her peak, the USS Oriskany, powered by 150,000 horsepower Westinghouse Geared Turbines, had an astonishing top-end speed of 33-knots, and carried 80 aircraft and a complement of nearly 3,500 crew members.
Tragedy struck the aircraft carrier on October 26, 1966, during her second Vietnam War deployment, when fire ravaged her forward compartments, taking the lives of 44 crew members. Many of those killed were veteran combat pilots who, a few hours earlier, had flown on raids over Vietnam. Serious damage to the 21-year-old battle scared warhorse ended Oriskany's 1966 Western Pacific deployment. Oriskany was repaired in the U.S. and returned to the war zone in mid-1967, where she rendered assistance to USS Forrestal when that carrier also suffered a blazing disaster.
With the Korean conflict over and a more relaxed atmosphere in the Far East, the “Mighty O” rested her guns and shouldered a battery of movie cameras. Oriskany became a "floating movie capital" when legendary film stars William Holden and Mickey Rooney participated in the filming of "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."
During her decorated career, the Oriskany was awarded two battle stars for Korean service and five for Vietnamese service, and was modified on multiple occasions to keep up with the evolving requirements of naval and military aircraft. Finally, though, it became way too expensive to update the aging carrier any longer. Following twenty-six years of devoted service, USS Oriskany was decommissioned in September 1976. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in July 1989, and was sold for scrapping in 1994. However, after a prolonged effort, the contractor defaulted, and USS Oriskany was repossessed by the Navy in 1997, and sat in U.S. Government custody awaiting her final fate.
Sixty years after being built, Oriskany was long past her service time. She was a decaying ship, and something needed to be done with her. It appears that military vessels, like all people, finally reach a point where the end becomes inevitable.
The question then arose of exactly what to do with her?” You can’t just drop a 900-foot long, 30,000 ton aircraft carrier in a dumpster. Unlike private pleasure craft, an aircraft carrier can’t exactly be left sitting on a trailer. At this point, there wasn’t even much benefit in scrapping and recycling her. It was estimated to cost 24 million dollars just to tear her apart.
So what do you do with an outdated military hulk? You designate it as the first Navy vessel and largest ship in the United States intentionally sunk to form an artificial reef, that’s what.
We all know a great deal of the best saltwater fishing comes from old wrecks resting peacefully on the bottom. We know the largest fish we’ve ever taken have all came from wrecks. If an old sixty-five foot long shrimpboat provides ideal habitat for a wide array of species, just imagine what a 904-foot long, 129-foot wide aircraft carrier could produce? It was unanimously decided that the Oriskany would become the world’s largest artificial reef. The next big question on the agenda was exactly where to sink her.
A competition for a reef site was commenced in May of 2003, and on April 5, 2004, Escambia County (Pensacola, Florida) was chosen from among proposed locations off Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and a joint proposal from Georgia/South Carolina, to be the final resting-place of the USS Oriskany. Several other destinations around the state of Florida- including the Broward/Dade County area- wanted the carrier, but because of its long-term heritage with naval aviation, Pensacola emerged victorious.
Though sinking an old ship might sound like a simple process, it has been anything but easy. When sending a vessel of this caliber to the bottom, the Navy couldn’t just tow the Oriskany out and pull the plug. The entire ship had to be stripped of all equipment of any value and made ready for reefing. The process included decontamination, opening doors and hatches below the hanger deck to allow air to vent during sinking, cutting openings in the watertight bulkheads in various locations to allow flooding, and removing certain sections of the hull to permit sea water into the sea chest piping. Then the hull had to be towed to Pensacola for final preparations, which took place for the first time in December of 2004. Delays in the preparation process made it prudent to tow the ship back to Texas since it was apparent Oriskany would not be ready to go down prior to the upcoming hurricane season. Imagine the level of devastation a 30,800 ton aircraft carrier washed ashore on a storm surge could cause! Judging by the catastrophic storm season the northern Gulf experienced in 2005, the decision to tow the ship back to Texas was a damned good one.
While at Maritime Administration (MARAD) Beaumont Texas Reserve Fleet Facility, new obstacles arose. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered in their routine inspections that the Oriskany was heavily contaminated by PCBs- probably from decades of jet fuel spills and old paint. For a while, it appeared that the ship might never pass EPA approval for sinking.
However, after extensive work scraping paint and clearing PCB contaminated structures, the EPA finally issued a permit which officially permitted the carrier to be scuttled. The EPA anticipates that the toxic chemicals will leach slowly enough to present no immediate or long term danger to marine life or humans.
On March 22, 2006, the Oriskany was towed to Pensacola for the second time where she has undergone final preparations for her final voyage. On or about May 17, 2006, the weathered warrior will be towed approximately 22 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico to an existing artificial reef site, where strategically placed C2 explosive charges, which will not be armed until after the ship is at her final location, will blast open multiple valves deep in her belly. The Navy developed an engineered sink plan, resulting in sea water flooding into the machinery spaces and then rising until the ship loses positive buoyancy and slowly slips beneath the surface. To hold the mega-wreck in position as she floods, mooring lines from either corner attached to enormous anchors estimated to weigh 75,000 pounds each will secure the vessel in place.
“You’ll probable hear a little pop,” says Evans, officer in charge of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 6, Detachment-Panama City. “You might even see a little dust cloud come off the flight deck, but that’s about it. And then, for an hour or two, you will probably notice nothing else as ocean water floods the interior of the carrier’s hull,” said Adams.
“Anyone can load the bottom with explosives and blow the ship apart, but that’s not what we want. It’s precision we’re after. Our goal is to do as little damage to the Oriskany as possible,” added Adams.
The Navy estimates that it will take approximately five hours until the highest point of the weathered aircraft carrier vanishes below the waterline, and ideally will result with the enormous ship landing upright on the ocean floor at a depth of just over 210 feet. This will provide 67 feet of clearance above the top of the carrier once she is sunk and resting on her keel. If all goes as planned, the ship will sit in a north/south orientation with the bow facing due south. Severe storm generated waves are less likely to move the ship once it is on the ocean floor if it is positioned this way. The moment she reaches the bottom, ownership of the ex-USS Oriskany transfers to the State of Florida. And that will be that. Or will it?
After years of hard work by many people, and a cost of nearly 19 million dollars, what will Florida get?
A Florida State University study estimates that the Oriskany, the world’s largest artificial reef, could generate up to 92 million dollars annually from tourists, divers, and sportfishermen. Even if the attraction doesn’t generate that much money, utilizing the ship as an artificial reef seems to make good financial sense. Remember, it was estimated to cost 24 million dollars just to scrap the ship.
Concerning the Oriskany right now, Harry White, Public Affairs Director at Pensacola Naval Air Station, which is helping coordinate the monumental undertaking, says that when the ship reaches bottom, she will start to draw life almost immediately. The Oriskany will be situated close to The Edge, which is the local Pensacola term for the drop-off from the continental shelf to the much deeper waters of the Gulf. White also says that the State of Florida has plans to install marker floats on the wreck to help anglers locate and tie up to the Oriskany. As far as fishing is concerned, with such a towering profile, anglers can anticipate an angling mecca with a wide variety of species visiting the wreck as well as taking up permanent residence.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of various plant and marine life forms will inhabit the wreck for shelter while utilizing the massive structure as primary feeding grounds. As growth begins to encompass the structure, the wreck will provide outstanding angling opportunities for many fishermen. Both bottom fishing and trolling should eventually yield excellent results. Only time will tell just how long it will take for the Oriskany to establish herself as a productive go-to spot.
Crabs, clams, and other crustaceans will move about the ship’s keel. Above them, the whole gamut of bottom dwellers including just about every species of snapper and grouper will be calling the same wreck home. Higher up in the water column, about 130-feet below the ocean’s surface, hunting packs of ravenous amberjack will surely be guarding the ship’s flight deck snatching everything they can wrap their mouth around.
The ship’s conning tower, with all its overhanging ledges and crevasses, will certainly be a popular destination for the likes of red snapper and even more amberjack.
With deep water so close by, pelagic species will hang their hats here, too.
When ideal conditions all come together, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume blackfin tuna and even the occasional wahoo will make their presence known.
Granted, it may very well take years for the giant steel structure to meld with her natural surroundings, but inevitably, the world’s largest artificial reef will evolve into an enormous ecosystem unlike anything the Gulf of Mexico floor has seen before.
Perhaps even more exciting, White states that the Oriskany is only the first of what is anticipated to be a long series of sunken, out-of-date military vessels which will continue to serve their nation, even while resting peacefully on the bottom of the ocean. As of December 2005, six vessels were in consideration for Navy reefing, two of which are Forrestal class 1067-foot, 60,000 ton aircraft carriers. Who knows, sometime in the very near future a mega-wreck may be coming to an area near you!
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