“We have done so well in mitigating weather that far too many people in the service fail to respect it.”
In a bizarre accident, the U.S. Navy suffered an expensive loss over the weekend that saw one of the most technologically advanced fighter jets in the world, an F/A-18 Super Hornet, blown off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The accident, which took place on July 8 as the ship was sailing the Mediterranean, injured one sailor. An investigation is underway.
Truman, along with the embarked Carrier Air Wing 1, was conducting a replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean. During unexpectedly heavy winds, the F/A-18 Super Hornet was blown overboard and into the water. The mission “was safely terminated through established procedures,” according to a Navy press release.
“One Sailor received minor injuries while conducting operations during the unexpected heavy weather,” the press release goes on to say. “The Sailor is in stable condition and expected to make a full recovery.” The Navy’s wording implies the sailor was injured during the underway replenishment, or “unrep,” and not during the loss of the aircraft.
The incident, the Navy reported, did not affect Truman’s ability to carry out its duties. “USS Harry S. Truman and embarked aircraft remain [fully] mission capable.” An aircraft carrier typically carries between 40 and 44 strike fighters on patrol. A Super Hornet typically weighs about 14.7 tons unloaded and up to 32 tons fully loaded.
It is not clear whether or not the Super Hornet was tied down at the time of the accident.
“You have got to always be ready to face heavy weather at sea. The Navy has put a lot of work into avoiding heavy weather,” Craig Hooper of the Themistocles Advisory Group tells Popular Mechanics. “We forget that a simple storm can be more effective than a hail of missiles in mission-killing a fleet. Aircraft are not the only things that can be lost at sea—heavy seas can break antennas, radars, and other sensors that matter far more than a basic fighter aircraft.”
Hooper recalled how in 1944 Typhoon Cobra—later known as “Halsey’s Typhoon”—killed almost 800 sailors and ripped several aircraft off carrier decks. “[Cobra] really hammered home the perils of sailing into a storm,” Hooper says. While the Navy lost only one aircraft in this incident, a single F/A-18 Super Hornet costs $74 million, making it an awfully expensive mistake.
Modern carriers and aircraft, with their sheer size, technological wizardry, and mighty track record give the appearance of invulnerability. Mother Nature, however, has the last word. “We have done so well in mitigating weather,” Hooper warns, “that far too many people in the service fail to respect it.”