The Aircraft Carrier and the Dhow
nothing at all happened on
was a self-deprecating hero who was credited with saving a school by staying
with his stricken RA-5C Vigilante spy plane following a flameout over central
During his nearly 30 years as a Navy flier, Smith received among other decorations the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, the Bronze Star for Valor, and 14 Air Medals.
that Thursday afternoon in the
USS John F. Kennedy Strike
Group, under the command of Rear
Adm. Donald K. Bullard,
normally consists of the carrier and its air wing, two cruisers, four
destroyers, two attack submarines, and a fast combat support ship. The Navy
isn’t saying how much of this armada was actually present on July 22, but we
know that the British frigate HMS
Somerset was trailing the Kennedy
in case someone went overboard during flight operations.
to numerous news accounts, during the flight operations the crew spotted a radar
contact 13 miles distant from the Kennedy
and identified it as a fishing dhow, typical of many vessels that ply the Gulf
waters. Although in the middle of flight ops, Kennedy
tried repeatedly to contact the dhow to warn it away from the operations.
readers should understand that the International Rules of the Road, which are
mandatory for all vessels everywhere, specifically give the right-of-way to
ships immediately involved in flight operations. The reason for this rule is
intuitively obvious, for if a carrier about to receive a landing plane were
suddenly to shift its heading to avoid another vessel, the landing aircraft
would just as suddenly find water instead of deck beneath its landing gear.
is precisely and exactly the situation that confronted the Kennedy
on that fateful night.
Stephen G. Squires was running with a full head of steam in international waters
on a course designed to give his approaching aircraft maximum headwind. He knew
about the approaching dhow – in fact, his operations watch was doing
everything possible to contact the boat to warn it away from the carrier.
Although the details are not yet available, it is a virtual certainty that
Squires dispatched another vessel in his Strike Group to investigate and divert
remember: It was night, dhows are made of wood (and thus are poor radar
targets), and things were happening quickly.
twenty minutes after first sighting of the dhow, the small vessel completely
disappeared not only from the carrier’s radar screens and
could not be spotted visually either. And then, about ten minutes later,
precisely during the final approach of an F-14, Kennedy
lookouts sighted the dhow close aboard off their starboard bow. Changing course
at this moment to avoid collision would have risked the lives of the aircrew,
the deck personnel, and could have significantly damaged the carrier and the
aircraft on its deck.
held his course until immediately after successful arrest of the landing plane,
and then turned sharply to port. As the carrier pitched in the sudden turn, the
F-14 slid into a parked F/A-18, damaging both aircraft. Men scattered on the
deck, and the dhow struck a glancing blow to starboard, broke apart from the
impact, and sank.
month and five days later, on Aug. 27, the Navy relieved Squires of his command.
Not for cause, Navy spokesmen explained, but for “administrative reasons.”
Squires has more than 4,900 flight hours, 89 combat sorties, and 510 arrested
landings. His awards include the Legion of Merit, three Meritorious Service
Medals, an Air Medal, four Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V,” two
Navy Achievement Medals, a Navy Unit Commendation, and various campaign and
man, this distinguished officer, this hero, the Navy relieved for doing his
duty, for following the rules, for taking actions that best served the interests
of his ship, his crew, and his country. After reviewing all accounts of the
incident I must ask, what is going on here?
there something we don’t know? Is a Navy desk-jockey staffer second-guessing
an operational commander? Is politics getting in the way of common sense? Is a
two-bit wooden dhow manned by a potentially hostile crew worth more that the
life and career of a distinguished officer?
went down that night alongside the Kennedy
could not possibly have missed the ongoing carrier operations. They could not
possibly have missed the warning signals – by radio, signal light, and
possibly even audible hailing. The inescapable conclusion is that the dhow was
where it was because its skipper wanted it there, despite all the warnings.
dhow and crew got precisely what they deserved, and it is unfortunate that a
couple of expensive aircraft were damaged in the process. To relieve Capt.
Squires over this incident is stupid beyond belief.
Smith was heroic; Capt. Squires is heroic; and the Kennedy
legacy must be allowed to continue. An investigation is in order – not of
Squire’s actions, but of his Navy superiors who allowed outside political
pressures to overcome their common sense and judgment.