U.S. Navy - A Brief History of Aircraft Carriers - USS Forrestal (CVA 59)

displacement: 59,900 tons
length: 1,046 feet
beam: 129 feet 4 inches; extreme width: 252 feet
draft: 28 feet
speed: 33 knots
complement: 4,000+ crew
armament: 8 5-inch guns
class: Forrestal

From: Dictionary of American Fighting Ships and United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1995,
both published by the Naval Historical Center, and official ship's histories

Full-screen images are linked from the images in the text below.

Forrestal underway in the Med in October 1957

The first of the "supercarriers," Forrestal (CVA-59) was launched 11 December 1954 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Newport News, Va.; sponsored by Mrs. James V. Forrestal, widow of Secretary of Defense Forrestal; and commissioned 1 October 1955, Capt. Roy L. Johnson in command.

Forrestal represented more than one step in the evolutionary chain of modern carrier aviation. Besides her sheer size and weight, she was the first built with an angled flight deck, which allows simultaneous takeoffs and landings. She also featured four catapults and four deck edge elevators to move aircraft from the hangar bays to the flight deck.

From her homeport, Norfolk, Va., Forrestal spent the first year of her commissioned service in intensive training operations off the Virginia Capes and in the Caribbean. Cmdr. Ralph L. Werner made the first arrested landing on January 3, 1956. An important assignment was training aviators in the use of her advanced facilities, a duty on which she often operated out of Mayport, Fla. On 7 November 1956, she put to sea from Mayport to operate in the eastern Atlantic during the Suez Crisis ready to enter the Mediterranean should her great strength be necessary. She returned to Norfolk 12 December to prepare for her first deployment with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, for which she sailed 15 January 1957.

On this, as on her succeeding tours of duty in the Mediterranean, Forrestal visited many ports to allow dignitaries and the general public to come aboard and view the tremendous power for peace she represented. For military observers, she staged underway demonstrations to illustrate her capacity to bring air power to and from the sea in military operations on any scale. She returned to Norfolk 22 July 1957 for exercises off the North Carolina coast in preparation for her first NATO operation, Operation Strikeback, in the North Sea. This deployment, between 3 September and 22 October, found her visiting Southampton England, as well as drilling in the highly important task of coordinating United States naval power with that of other NATO nations.

The next year found Forrestal participating in a series of major fleet exercises, as well as taking part in experimental flight operations. During the Lebanon Crisis of summer 1958, the great carrier was again called upon to operate in the eastern Atlantic to back up naval operations in the Mediterranean. She sailed from Norfolk 11 July to embark an air group at Mayport two days later, then patrolled the Atlantic until returning to Norfolk 17 July 1958.

On her second tour of duty in the Mediterranean, from 2 September 1958 to 12 March 1959, Forrestal again combined a program of training, patrol, and participation in major exercises with ceremonial, hospitality and public visiting. Her guest list during this cruise was headed by Secretary of Defense N. H. McElroy. Returning to Norfolk, she continued the never ending task of training new aviators, constantly maintaining her readiness for instant reaction to any demand for her services brought on by international events. Visitors during the year included King Hussein of Jordan.

Launch of aircraft as the ships nears the U.S.

From 1958 through 1966, Forrestal alternated between the Second Fleet in the Atlantic and Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. She again brought her imposing presence to the 6th Fleet between 28 January 1960 and 31 August, visiting the ports usual to a Mediterranean deployment as well as Split, Yugoslavia. Again she was open for visitors at many ports, as well as taking part in the patrol and training schedule of the Sixth Fleet. Upon her return to the United States, she resumed her schedule of east coast and Caribbean operations for the remainder of 1960.

Forrestal made history in November 1963 when on the 8th, 21st and 22nd, Lt. James H. Flatley III and his crew members, Lt. Cmdr. "Smokey" Stovall and Aviation Machinist's Mate (Jets) 1st Class Ed Brennan, made 21 full-stop landings and takeoffs in a C-130F Hercules aboard the ship. The tests were conducted 500 miles out in the North Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts. In so doing, Forrestal and the C-130 set a record for the largest and heaviest airplane landing on a Navy aircraft carrier. The Navy was trying to determine if the big Hercules could serve as a "Super-COD" a "Carrier On-board Delivery" aircraft. The problem was there was no aircraft which could provide resupply to a carrier in mid ocean. The Hercules was stable, reliable, and had a long cruising range and high payload.

The tests were more than successful. At 85,000 pounds, the C-130F came to a complete stop within 267 feet, and at the maximum load, the plane used only 745 feet for take-off. The Navy concluded that with the C-130 Hercules, it would be possible to lift 25,000 pounds of cargo 2,500 miles and land it on a carrier. However, the idea was considered a bit too risky for routine COD operations. The C-2A Greyhound program was developed and the first of these planes became operational in 1965. For his effort, the Navy awarded Lt. Flatley the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In June 1967, Forrestal departed Norfolk for duty in waters off Vietnam. As the huge ship cut a wake through the calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on 29 July 1967, the hot, tropical sun beat down from a clear sky. Forrestal had been launching aircraft from her flight deck on strikes against an enemy whose coastline was only a few miles over the horizon. For four days, the planes of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 had been launched on, and recovered from, about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam. On the ship's four-acre flight deck, her crewmen went about the business at hand, the business of accomplishing the second launch of the fifth day in combat.

Aftermath of the fire aboard Forrestal

It was just about 10:50 a.m. (local time). The launch that was scheduled for a short time later was never made. Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, later a prisoner of war in Vietnam and still later U.S. Senator from Arizona, said later he heard a "whooshy" sound then a "low-order explosion" in front of him. Suddenly, two A-4s ahead of his plane were engulfed in flaming jet fuel JP-5 spewed from them. A bomb dropped to the deck and rolled about six feet and came to rest in a pool of burning fuel.

The awful conflagration, which was to leave 132 Forrestal crewmen dead, 62 more injured and two missing and presumed dead, had begun. The entire nation felt the tragedy, and Life magazine reported that "in five minutes, everyone became a man." The ship returned to Norfolk for extensive repairs.

Forrestal deployed to Mediterranean waters four time between 1968 and 1973, she sped to Tunisia for rescue operations in the flooded Medjerda River Valley near Tunis.

The ship logged three more Mediterranean deployments between 1973 and 1975. On 22 July 1974, as a result of a conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces on Cyprus, the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Roger Davies requested the evacuation of U.S. citizens from that island nation. In a joint Navy-Marine Corps effort, HMM-162 from the Sixth Fleet amphibious assault ship USS Inchon (LPH 12) evacuated 466 people, 384 of them U.S. citizens, in only five hours. Forrestal provided air cover for that operation.

In 1975, Forrestal was selected to be host ship for the International Naval Review in New York City on the nation's Bicentennial. On July 4, 1976, on Forrestal's flight deck, President Gerald Ford rang in the Bicentennial and reviewed over 40 "Tall Ships" from countries around the world.

Shortly after the review, Forrestal participated in a special shock test. It involved the detonation of high explosives near the hull to determine if a capital ship could withstand the strain of close quarter combat and still remain operational.

In September 1977, following a nine month overhaul, Forrestal departed Norfolk and shifted homeport to Mayport, Fla. The carrier left Mayport on 13 January 1978 for a three-week at-sea period in the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Range of the Roosevelt Roads Operating Area to complete the third phase of Type Commander's Training (TYT-3), and to undergo the Operational Readiness Evaluation (ORE). Tragedy struck Forrestal on the evening of 15 January as an A-7E Corsair II from VA-81 crashed on the flight deck, killing two deck crewmen and injuring 10 others. The pilot ejected safely and was recovered, suffering only minor injuries. The plane crashed as the pilot attempted to land while the aft portion of the flight deck was crowded with aircraft. The Corsair struck a parked A-7 and an EA-6B before careening across the deck in a ball of flames. A small fire on the aft portion of the deck, caused by fuel spilled during the crash, was extinguished within seconds. At the time of the accident Forrestal was operating about 49 miles off St. Augustine, Fla. A memorial service for the dead was held on board on 19 January. The ship returned to Mayport 3 February.

Forrestal left Mayport for the Mediterranean on 4 April 1978. At 2200 on 8 April, just minutes after the ship had finished a general quarters drill, the crew was called to G.Q. again, but this time it was not a drill; a fire had broken out in the Number Three Main Machinery Room. Freshly painted lagging in Three Main engine room had been set smoldering by hot steam lines. Watch-standers within the space activated an extinguishing system and had the fire out within seconds.

Three days later the crew again was called to respond to another emergency G.Q. At midnight on 11 April, fire was discovered in a catapult steam trunk in the forward part of the ship at about the 01 level, and another fire was found in an adjoining storeroom minutes later. The at-sea fire brigade, working with area repair lockers, had the fires out within the hour.

Forrestal recorded her 227,000th arrested landing on 22 April 1978 while in the Mediterranean. Pilot Lt. j.g. Erick Hitchcock and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lt. j.g. Al Barnet of VF-74 were the crew of the F-4 Phantom that marked the milestone trap.

On 10 May 1978, flooding which began in a pump room in the aft portion of the ship rose to a height of 20 feet before it was controlled and spread into food storage rooms, destroying most of the ship's stocks of fresh milk and produce. Divers from the ship's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team dropped into the pump room to plug the leak. Total damage from the flooding was estimated at $30,000.

From 19 to 29 May 1978, Forrestal participated in Dawn Patrol, the first of three NATO exercises the ship would be involved in during the deployment. Dawn Patrol involved air and ground forces and over 80 ships from six NATO countries. Forrestal's role during the exercise included protecting a Turkish amphibious task group and working with USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and the French carrier Foch to defend against simulated "enemy" ships and aircraft.

During this sea period two separate air crashes on successive days left one pilot dead and another injured. On 24 June 1978, Lt. Cmdr. T. P. Anderson, Operations Officer for Carrier Air Wing Seventeen, was killed when his A-7E Corsair II crashed into the sea during a practice bombing mission. On 25 June a pilot from VA-83, also flying an A-7E, ejected shortly after takeoff, suffering minor injuries. A rescue crew aboard an SH-3D Sea King helicopter from HS-3 recovered the pilot and returned to the ship within eight minutes after the crash. Both accidents occurred as the ship was operating in the Ionian Sea, east of Sicily.

From 4 to 19 September 1978, Forrestal participated in the massive NATO exercise Northern Wedding, which included over 40,000 men, 22 submarines, and 800 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft from nine NATO countries. Northern Wedding, which takes place every four years, practices NATO's ability to reinforce and resupply Europe in times of tension or war. During the exercise Forrestal and the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal headed separate task groups, steaming in a two-carrier formation to gain sea control and deploying their aircraft in support of mock amphibious landings in the Shetland Islands and Jutland, Denmark.

From 28 September to 10 October, Forrestal participated in Display Determination, the third and final NATO exercise of the deployment. The operation, involving ships, aircraft, and personnel from eight NATO countries, was designed to practice rapid reinforcement and resupply of the southern European region in times of tension or war. Forrestal arrived in Rota on 11 October for the last overseas port stop of the deployment.

On 13 October 1978, the ship put to sea to conduct a one-day exercise with a task group of deploying U.S. ships headed by the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-60). Air Wing Seventeen's planes conducted mock attacks on the task group to allow the ships to practice anti-air warfare. Forrestal returned to Rota late in the evening on the 13th.

Before dawn on 15 October, Forrestal departed Rota and out-chopped from the Sixth Fleet, having been relieved by Saratoga. On the homeward transit, Forrestal took an extreme northerly course as part of a special operation code-named Windbreak. Commander Second Fleet, Vice Adm. Wesley L. McDonald, embarked in Forrestal for the exercise. Windbreak was designed to introduce U.S. sailors and equipment to relatively unfamiliar waters and conditions, and to gauge Soviet interest in U.S. ships in transit to and from the Mediterranean. During the exercise, Forrestal traveled as far north as 62 degrees latitude, 150 miles south of Iceland, encountering seas to 34 feet, winds in excess of 70 knots, and a wind chill factor that drove the temperature as far down as 0 degrees. Also participating in Windbreak were the guided missile cruiser USS Harry E. Yarnell (CG-l7) and the destroyer USS Arthur W. Radford (DD-968).

Forrestal returned to Mayport on 26 October 1978. On 13 November Forrestal commenced a four-month period of upkeep and repair known as an Extended Selected Restricted Availability (ESRA), to be conducted as the ship was moored alongside the carrier pier in Mayport. Forrestal ended 1978 as she had started it, moored to the carrier pier in Mayport.

After completing two more Mediterranean cruises, she celebrated her silver anniversary in October 1980.

On 2 March 1981, Forrestal began her 16th Mediterranean deployment and second quarter century of naval service. During the Syria/Israel missile crisis, Forrestal maintained a high state of readiness for 53 consecutive days at sea. In a Gulf of Sidra exercise, two Libyan aircraft were shot down after firing upon F-14s from USS Nimitz (CVN 68) over international waters. Forrestal aircraft made more than 60% of all the intercepts of Libyan planes. After departing the Mediterranean she operated above the Arctic Circle as part of NATO Ocean Venture '81.

After a repair period, Forrestal deployed for her 17th Mediterranean cruise on 8 June 1982, and operated in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the Lebanon Contingency Force of 800 U.S. Marines in Beirut. On 12 September 1982, after transiting the Suez Canal for the first-time in her 28-year history, she entered the Indian Ocean. This marked the first time that Forrestal had operated with Seventh Fleet since the 1967 Vietnam cruise.

Forrestal completed the five and one-half month deployment with a nighttime arrival at Mayport on November 16 and immediately began preparing for the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). The ship shifted homeport to Philadelphia, Penn., on 18 January 1983, and embarked on the 28-month, $550 million SLEP, designed to extend the life of U.S. aircraft carriers another 15 to 20 years.

During Forrestal's SLEP the ship was completely emptied and most major equipment was removed for rework or replacement. Forrestal's successful SLEP period was completed on time when the ship left Philadelphia on 20 May 1985. After completing a four-day transit to her homeport of Mayport, Fla., Forrestal immediately began a workup cycle in preparation for her first deployment in over four years.

Forrestal departed Mayport on 2 June 1986, on her 18th deployment. During this cruise, Forrestal aircraft frequently operated in the international airspace of the Tripoli Flight region, the international air traffic control sector of Libya. Forrestal also participated in Operation Sea Wind, a joint U.S.-Egyptian training exercise and Display Determination, which featured low-level coordinated strikes and air combat maneuvering training over Turkey.

In 1987, Forrestal went through yet another period of pre-deployment workups. This included refresher training, carrier qualifications, and a six-week deployment to the North Atlantic to participate in Ocean Safari '87. In this exercise, Forrestal operated with NATO forces in the fjords of Norway.

Forrestal departed on her 19th major deployment on 25 April 1988. She steamed directly to the North Arabian Sea via the Suez Canal in support of America's Earnest Will operations in the region. She spent 108 consecutive days at sea before her first liberty port. During the five and one-half month deployment, Forrestal operated in three ocean areas and spent only 15 days in-port. She returned on 7 October 1988, and received the Meritorious Unit Citation for her superior operational performance during the deployment.

Forrestal at New York for Fleet Week '89

After a brief stand down period followed by local operations, Forrestal participated in New York City's Fleet Week in May 1989, and then commenced preparations for her next deployment.

Forrestal's departure for her 20th major deployment was delayed when a fire caused major damage to a primary command and control trunk space. Through the efforts of the ship's crew and civilian contractors, Forrestal was able to depart for her deployment on 6 November 1989, completing the necessary repairs well ahead of projections.

The final two months of 1989 proved exciting. Beyond the "routine" exercises and training initiatives, Forrestal's crew became part of history, as they provided support to President of the United States George Bush during his Malta Summit. The support included a three-hour Presidential visit to the ship.

Forrestal participated in numerous exercises during this deployment including; Harmonie Sud, Tunisian Amphibious and National Week. She returned to Mayport on 12 April 1990, ending a deployment which had included eight port visits in five different countries.

The year 1991 was a year of anticipation and change for Forrestal and its crew, as she spent the first five months maintaining combat readiness as the east coast ready carrier. Maintaining a hectic and challenging period of at-sea operations, Forrestal's anticipated deployment in support of Operation Desert Storm was not to be, and orders to deploy were canceled twice during the conflict.

The call to deploy finally came and Forrestal commenced its 21st and final operational deployment on 30 May 1991.

No less challenging than the months of maintaining readiness for combat, Forrestal's deployment was repeatedly referred to as "transitional." During the ensuing seven months, Forrestal was called upon to provide air power presence and airborne intelligence support for Operation Provide Comfort, and to initiate, test and evaluate a wide range of innovative COMSIXTHFLT battle group tactics and new carrier roles.

The year ended with Forrestal making advanced preparations for its change of homeport to Pensacola, Fla., and the transition into a new role as the Navy's training carrier, replacing USS Lexington (AVT 16). Forrestal arrived in Philadelphia 14 September 1992 to begin a 14-month, $157 million complex overhaul prior to assuming the duties as training carrier. In early 1993, however, the Navy decided to decommission Forrestal and leave the Navy without a dedicated training carrier.

Forrestal was decommissioned 11 September 1993 at Pier 6E in Philadelphia, and was stricken from the Navy List the same day. Currently, she is on donation hold as a museum and memorial at the Naval Station, Newport, R.I.

Last Update: 15 June 2009