A casual observer might wonder why U.S. aircraft carriers have a lonesome pole with one white light atop it on the starboard side of the flight deck, just aft the near end of the starboard catapult. It happened like this:
One dark night in the mid-1970s, the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-60) and an escort of destroyers were tasked to make a night transit of the Strait of Messina. Commander Sixth Fleet’s strategy was to keep one carrier group in the western Mediterranean, another in the east, and it was time for the Saratoga group to switch from west to east. This most often was done at night to afford maximum daylight hours for flying on either end of the transit and, perhaps, to make things a bit more difficult for the trailing Soviet intelligence ship.
Even in daylight passage through Messina can be difficult. There is a heavy volume of merchant traffic going both ways, as well as other traffic moving at roughly 90 degrees to transiting traffic going back and forth between Messina and Calabria. The currents can be unpredictable, and whirlpools remind one of Odysseus’s problems with Charybdis.
While the whirlpools seldom affect an aircraft carrier, there are other hazards. Chief among them is sorting out the myriad lights of ships and boats and radar tracks. Captains and navigation teams often work into cold sweats as they try to avoid collisions while proceeding through the conglomeration of tracks, blips, electronic noise, and reports from topside lookouts. Add to all of that the need to make a 90-degree turn at the narrowest part of the strait to remain on track and away from shallow water.
That was the situation in the Saratoga that night in 1976.
The ship was proceeding deliberately, on course, at 15 knots. Suddenly, out of the gloom, dead ahead and close, appeared a pair of lights, one white and one green slightly lower, with no discernible drift either to the right or to the left.
Realizing that an unknown vessel was about to be rammed, the Saratoga’s captain ordered, “All engines stop! All engines back full! Sound the collision alarm!” As the big ship shuddered in response to the sudden backing, the unknown vessel began to drift to the right, and to the relief of all a collision was avoided by a hair’s breadth.
Once it was realized disaster had been avoided, the Sara continued on her track, albeit with a somewhat shaken bridge team. Then, unsurprisingly, began a discussion about what had prompted that small vessel to cross the bow of a huge carrier barreling along at 15 knots.
At first, there were a number of comments about Italian drivers but, finally, some bridge watchstander asked the obvious question, “Why would any captain in his right mind cross ahead of such an obviously large ship?” It didn’t take long to find the answer. That captain didn’t know it was such a large ship—much less an aircraft carrier—because the Saratoga’s lights were all wrong.
It’s the way lights were installed on all U.S. aircraft carriers at the time: side lights, one green on the starboard side, one red on the port side of the island structure; a white stern light on the fantail; another white light at the highest point on the ship, the top of the island; and a second white light lower and forward of the high one, in this case at the forward end of the island structure just above the ship’s bridge, not far from the higher light. Complicating matters was that ships’ running lights also were on the island. Unfortunately, on a black night, the combination gave indication the ship was much shorter than she actually was. Given that, it was easy to see how a crossing ship might think it was crossing at a greater distance than it was.
The Saratoga completed the transit without anymore problems and entered the Ionian Sea ready for flight operations at first light. The story did not end there, however.
Some years later, the incident was related to Rear Admiral Bulkeley, then-president of the Naval Board of Inspection and Survey. Admiral Bulkeley, never one to shy from tough problems, took up the challenge to improve navigation lighting in aircraft carriers.
After collecting evidence and educating doubters as to the potential violation of the rules of the road, let alone the accident potential of the existing configuration, he was able to get a ships’ alteration approved. All aircraft carriers and other similarly configured ships soon sported a special mast on the starboard side forward of the bridge. Admiral Bulkeley deserves full credit for solving a serious safety issue, but it was the Saratoga’s hair-raising experience in the Strait of Messina that got the ball rolling.
Admiral Dunn served as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare from 1987 to 1989 and as commanding officer of the Saratoga from 1974 to 1976. He is a past president of the Naval Historical Foundation and past chairman of the Naval Institute’s Editorial Board.