Underwater history

Burchfield and Williams dive on sunken aircraft carrier off Florida coast

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Call it a history and biology lesson experienced underwater.

Capt. Jeff Burchfield with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office and Alan Williams with Rhea’s Diving Service spent time this past fall on the deck and in the hallways of the USS Oriskany.

It wasn’t your normal sightseeing tour of a battleship. It was from the deck of the USS Oriskany that Sen. John McCain’s fighter jet took off before he was shot down and held prisoner during the Vietnam War. This same ship also sustained a fire during a tour on Oct. 26, 1966.

The ship now rests on the ocean floor off the coast of Pensacola, the property of the state of Florida. The state purchased the aircraft carrier as part of an artificial reef program.

Burchfield said the state didn’t just pay for the ship and then sink it. "It had to be stripped down to the metal," he said. "It took three years and costs millions of dollars. It’s going to be a tourist attraction for the entire Gulf, but especially Pensacola. It’s only 22 miles out."

The approximately 900-foot long ship was actually sunk on May 17. Burchfield and Williams dove on the ship on Oct. 10.
The top of the carrier’s island where the air traffic controllers worked, and the captain controlled the ship is about 68 feet down. The flight deck is about 130 feet from the surface. "It looked like a city underwater," Williams said. "We have done dives on ships 600 and 700 feet long, but this is like a city underwater as far as you can see."

"It was crazy huge," Burchfield said. "It’s so big you can’t comprehend it all. I went down into the flight deck (the level just below the top deck), and it was a massive black hole."

Others who dove at the same time brought fewer tanks than Burchfield and Williams, so they only got to spend about 10 to 12 minutes on the ship.

Burchfield said when they dove to the ship, they used three tanks a piece so they spent about 45 minutes on the ship. "I had a high definition camera and shot about 30 minutes of video," Williams said. Burchfield and Williams then had enough air to complete their slow ascent, stopping at 50 feet down, 40 feet down, 30 feet down to allow their bodies to decompress before they reached the surface.

Burchfield said divers will be able to see not only the ship, but how marine life is thriving on the ship. "It’s a great opportunity," he said.

Williams added, "It’s like a condo city for marine life."

Besides being a biology lesson, the sunken carrier also is a history lesson and that point wasn’t lost on Burchfield. "It was a very great honor to dive on the ship that was part of our history, the history of the sailors and marines who served on it. They had an American flag on the port side of the ship."

Williams agreed. "There’s a lot of history behind this ship," he said. "It was used in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the one that caught fire off the coast of Vietnam. They lost 44 sailors. It’s the one John McCain and James Stockdale flew off of, an Essex-class carrier," Williams said.

The Essex-class aircraft carriers were the largest class of heavy warships -- 24 built in all -- in the 20th century. The Oriskany could carry a crew of 2,600 and between 80 and 100 planes. The Essex ships and the Midway-class carriers were considered the backbone of the Navy’s combat strength after World War II until the super carriers came into being in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Discovery Channel featured the Oriskany in a feature titled "Sinking of an Aircraft Carrier" last year.

Burchfield said being able to float down to the bridge of the ship where missions were launched that were part of history of the country was an honor. "Many decisions were made on that bridge," he said.

As for the underwater tour, "it was tight," Burchfield said.

"We went down the hallways," said Williams. "There wasn’t anything there, but not a lot of room to go inside."

Burchfield and Williams also saw plenty of fish and other marine life. "We had everything from tiny bait fish to larger barracuda," Burchfield said. "I came up on three barracuda on the flight deck. They were like in formation. It was like they were waiting there to take off. It was uncanny."

Burchfield and Williams said they plan to make future trips to Pensacola to dive again on the Oriskany.

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