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March 2, 2022: In January 2022 the U.S. Navy had an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate that its damage control capabilities and training were still as good as ever. An F-35C landing on the nuclear-powered carrier Vinson ran into problems during the approach and crashed into the rear of the ship. The pilot ejected safely and was picked up by a helicopter while the carrier damage control teams extinguished the fire that broke out in the rear of the carrier under the flight deck. Damage was assessed and quickly repaired within 45 minutes and flight operations resumed. There were several other aircraft waiting to land on the Vinson and the quick damage control response enabled those aircraft to land on the Vinson rather than diverting to an airbase.

Although the navy has had few opportunities to use its aircraft carrier damage control capabilities since the 1970s, its training and techniques did keep up with advances in aircraft and ship design. This includes the possibility of a carrier being damaged far from any other carrier or land base. Until the 1970s carrier task forces often contained two or more carriers, providing landing options for operations on the high seas. During World War II the navy put over a hundred carriers into service and that provided needed redundancy late in the war when Japan used Kamikaze suicide aircraft tactics against American invasion fleets attacking Japanese positions and ships far from any allied-controlled land bases.

Since the 1970s there have been a lot of close calls on carriers, as in fires breaking out on the flight or hangar decks below the flight deck. Such fires were quickly extinguished before they could cause structural damage and disrupt flight operations. There were still disasters on smaller warships, especially during the 1980s and after the 1990s. The U.S. and British navies shared their experiences in such matters and modified ship designs or damage control procedures as needed. Non-carrier damage control skills continued to be maintained and saved several frigates and destroyers that would otherwise have sunk.

After World War II the mishaps that badly damaged carriers were all operational, because armed and fueled jets can have accidents while on the flight deck or during landing operations. This made it clear that no matter how safe the aircraft became in the future, there was still the possibility of an accident shutting down carrier flight operations for hours. The retirement of all smaller non-nuclear carriers meant carrier task forces would contain a single carrier, making damage control tech and training more important than ever.

One of the major advances in damage control training was the adoption of computer game software customized to represent what damage control teams would face in a major disaster. This enabled damage control teams to get realistic training in situations that could never be recreated just for training. A new generation of officers and sailors grew up with commercial game software of similar detail and realism and took to the new damage control versions.

The simulations were also used to examine ship, especially carrier, designs for hidden vulnerabilities that could cause major problems if there was an explosion or large fire on the flight or hangar deck below the flight deck. This sort of scrutiny began before World War II and made American carriers less vulnerable to out-of-control fires because fuel storage and pipes were not built to handle battle damage. There was a similar situation with aircraft. Japanese fighters were more maneuverable early on but also more vulnerable to battle damage, especially in fuel tanks. American aircraft had self-sealing fuel tanks and some armor to protect key aircraft elements, like the pilots.

 


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