The Aircraft Carrier and the Dhow
Had nothing at all happened on July 22, 2004, it still would have been a sad day for the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-67). Retired Navy Capt. Charles R. Smith Jr., who was Kennedy’s first Executive Officer on her maiden voyage in 1968, died of heart and lung disease in Sandusky, Ohio.
Smith 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 Florida in 1967. After ordering his copilot to bail, he managed to land the craft safely.
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.
On that Thursday afternoon in the Persian Gulf, the 5,000 men and women comprising the crew of the Kennedy paused to remember one of theirs. And then they returned to flight ops that lasted well into the night, flight ops in support of operations against Iraqi insurgents.
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.
According 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.
Non-seagoing 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.
This is precisely and exactly the situation that confronted the Kennedy on that fateful night.
Capt. 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 the dhow.
But remember: It was night, dhows are made of wood (and thus are poor radar targets), and things were happening quickly.
About 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.
Squires 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.
Both Kennedy and Somerset launched helicopters and small craft to search for survivors, but it was dark and rough, and all they found were a few pieces of rotting wood.
A 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.”
Capt. 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 service ribbons.
This 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?
Is 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?
Whoever 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.
The 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.
Capt. 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.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor