10 February 2011

The Unlucky Melbourne

I was perusing Wikipedia today and I saw that February 10 was the anniversary of the Melbourne-Voyager collision of 1964. The aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne collided with and sunk destroyer HMAS Voyager off the New South Wales coast. I'd guess most of you Australian readers have at least heard of it.

Melbourne has the unfortunate distinction of ramming two destroyers in its 25-year-long career, the Voyager in 1964 and the USS Frank E. Evans in 1969. Both vessels were acting as 'plane guards' in a close formation with the carrier.

In the first incident, it would appear that Voyager's command crew misjudged the speed of their own vessel and position relative to Melbourne, and in trying to compensate slipped in front of Melbourne's bow, with the end result being that Voyager was cut in two, sinking her with the loss of 82 of her 320 crew. The inquiry afterwards placed most of the blame on Voyager, and indicated that her captain may have been medically unfit for command. He had been drinking (though his blood alcohol level was well below any legal impairment level), and a doctor had prescribed amphetamines for him. Use of amphetamines and stimulants is a not uncommon occurrence in the military, so it's unknown if those drugs affected him enough to cloud his judgement.

Here Melbourne is limping back to port, where she'd spend several weeks at Cockatoo getting a new bow.

The collision with the Evans took place at night during a naval exercise. As she took up her plane guard station, she crossed in front of Melbourne. Both ships tried to turn away from each other, but far too late. The big carrier split the Evans, killing 74 of her 336 crew.

Here the stern section of the Evans is seen, still afloat. After the incident, a joint RAN-USN Board of Inquiry was formed to investigate the collision. And from what I've read, it was a bit of-no pun intended-a kangaroo court. The Evans' command crew was clearly at fault. Commander McLemore left two very inexperienced officers on the bridge at the time of the incident-one had failed his qualification exams and the other was at sea for the first time. Nevertheless, strenous efforts were made to place maximum blame on the Australians through fabricated evidence and shady legal tactics.

The Board ruled, however, that both ships were more or less equally at fault. I'd bet there was some fairly colorful language between both sides before reaching that verdict. In 1999, Commander McLemore admitted responsibility for the collision, and that he shouldn't have had two inexperienced personnel in command on that evening. Honorable-but one hopes he contacted Captain Stevenson of the Melbourne to say it as well.

Due to these two incidents, the Melbourne was considered 'unlucky' or 'jinxed', despite having served well for a quarter century. But was it, really?

Going down to the sea in ships is a dangerous profession. Operating an aircraft carrier is one of the riskier things to do in that profession. Take a piece of land 800 feet long and 80 feet wide. Put 25-30 airplanes and 5-6 helicopters on it. Have them takeoff and land at the same time. Fuel them up on one side of the piece of land. Load ammunition on them as well. In addition, have 40-50 people walking around the land. If you can operate without killing anyone or destroying your planes, then congratulations! You can do carrier operations.

It takes great skill and knowledge by captains and helmsmen to perform any operations in formations and manuevering. One of the trickiest pieces of seamanship is underway replenishment. Two or three ships have to maintain a perfect parallel formation, keeping a constant distance from each other and moving at exactly the same speed, possibly in a pitching, rolling sea.

But a good captain only has to keep two pieces of basic physics in his or her mind:

1) Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion.
2) Force equals mass times velocity.

In both cases involving Melbourne, the destroyer captains had far nimbler vessels than the 22,000 ton carrier. There's no way it can be stopped on a dime. And in both cases, Melbourne was ramping up for flight operations, which meant she'd have been getting up to top speed to get enough wind over the flight deck to launch planes. It would have been incumbent on both destroyers' commanders to anticipate and prepare for any manuevers Melbourne would make to allow her to do flight ops.

I don't think Melbourne was any more 'jinxed' than any other carrier. The US Navy has had horrific accidents on its own carriers, especially during combat operations and manuevers. Enterprise, Forrestal, Nimitz, and Oriskany have suffered serious fires and explosions on board in their time.

This was on board USS Forrestal back in the late 1960s.

In 1975, carrier USS John F. Kennedy collided with cruiser USS Belknap-

-resulting in major damage to the Belknap, requiring a three-year rebuilding in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

So the HMAS Melbourne, although unfortunate enough to sink two destroyers in separate incidents, probably wasn't any more or less 'lucky' than any other vessel. Navies have to be at sea to drill and practice, and collisions are part of the price for doing business.

yankeedog out.


  1. To start with I thought this title was a cheeky reference to my arrival in Melbourne tomorrow ;)

    Actually, I found it an interesting read.

  2. changes the perspective somewhat when you make note of the fact that USN ships have suffered similar fates at the hands of carriers. FKN GOOD POST DAWG!

  3. Thanks for the sympathetic hearing, even in Australia it is portrayed as largely the Melbournes fault.

  4. Mayhem-You know, my original title was going to be 'Look Out! Melbourne!'. That would have worked out nicely in referring to these events-or your trip to Melb!

    Havock-Carriers are big bastards and aren't that maneuverable. Whatever the navigational conventions are, smaller vessels have to be alert when operating around them.

    Barnesy-Often in a ship/ship collision, both sides have some blame. I'm sorry-but it's hard to NOT see a lit-up aircraft carrier!

  5. A lpot of sentiment around Oz about the Melbourne being jinxed. Nice to see a U.S. perspective. I miss the old flat top. Used to look great parked in Sydney Harbour whenever it visited for refit.
    Top post again YD.

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  7. Re: 12 Feb 2011 comment: It may not be hard to see a lit-up carrier, but it can be hard to figure out what direction they're going. That's why all US CVs have "Belknap Masts" now. Nice page.