PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. — After more than half a century of wartime valor, maritime tragedy and cinematic triumph, the aircraft carrier Oriskany is preparing for its final mission: sinking into an afterlife as an artificial reef.
But being transformed into an attraction for anglers and divers in the Gulf of Mexico is proving one of the more challenging assignments for the storied and long-retired ship. Tons of toxic materials have had to be stripped from its rusted carcass and the Navy's civilian salvagers have prepared its warren of compartments to take on water in strict martial order.
"The Navy builds carriers to float, not to sink," Capt. Lawrence M. Jones, inactive ships manager, says of the difficulty in scuttling a vessel designed to withstand torpedoes and air strikes.
But sink it must, to fulfill the cost-cutting aims of the Navy and the recreational dreams of those claiming the vessel for its last tour of duty.
Although thousands of artificial reefs have been created along U.S. coastlines, the 900-foot-long Oriskany is the largest vessel ever designated for sea-bottom service.
Weather permitting, the now-corroded carrier that was home to 3,460 sailors -- including a future Sen. John McCain -- and 80 aircraft during the wars in Korea and Vietnam will be towed 24 miles offshore on Tuesday and sunk a day later. To minimize the risk of storms or tidal action affecting its position, it will be aligned north to south, bow out and stern to the distant shoreline.
Early on sinking day, the Navy and its civilian scrappers, Resolve Marine Group of Port Everglades, Fla., will detonate preset charges to punch the last crucial holes in the hull to allow the carrier to take on seawater at a strategic pace and pattern so that it sinks "even keel, even trim." The slow-motion belly flop is expected to last at least five hours.
"You're not going to see anything on the outside of the ship," Denise Johnston, Resolve Marine's vice president, warned would-be onlookers who might be expecting the wham-bam results of a high-rise building demolition. The Navy will establish a cordon around the Oriskany, but curious locals, visitors and veterans still plan to watch the planned sunrise sinking from boats a mile away.
One who hopes to be among the spectators is Charles Tinker, a retired Navy captain who was a 34-year-old fighter squadron pilot when the Oriskany endured its deadliest incident, an Oct. 26, 1966, fire that took the lives of 44 shipmates.
"I've got a sentimental feeling toward the ship. I spent a lot of my life aboard, an important part of my life," said Tinker of his two separate tours of Oriskany duty. He remembers the harrowing fire "as if it was last week."
Sending the Oriskany to a watery grave for the enjoyment of tourists "initially didn't sit too well," Tinker said. But with time he's come to regard the reef project as a way of keeping the carrier in public service instead of in the scrap yard.
"There's some vets who think it's not dignified" to sink the Oriskany, said Denny Earl, another Vietnam-era flier. Earl, an avid diver, isn't among them.
"A lot of ships are sold for scrap," he said. "To me, being converted to razor blades is not very dignified either." Now 65, Earl plans to pay an undersea visit to the old warship as soon as state authorities deem it opened, likely within a week of the sinking.
Earl earned citations for exceptional valor during the Vietnam War when, wounded in both legs by enemy fire, he dropped his payload and returned his A-4 Skyhawk for a textbook landing on the Oriskany while banging his fist against the cockpit window to stay conscious.
It was also from the deck of the Oriskany and in a Skyhawk that Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III flew off for a raid over North Vietnam in 1967. He was shot down, captured and tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war, an experience that helped mold the Arizona Republican's current views on the treatment of war-on-terrorism suspects.
Named for the New York state battleground where the tide of the Revolutionary War turned in 1777, the Oriskany was authorized for construction by Congress in the heat of World War II, launched two months after that war ended and commissioned almost five years later on Sept. 25, 1950, when the Korean War was already in progress.
Early in its active duty career, the Oriskany became a Hollywood backdrop. Scenes were shot aboard the carrier for "The Bridges of Toko-Ri," a 1955 Korean War drama starring William Holden and Grace Kelly. The ship was still rolling up film credits eight years ago when it appeared in "What Dreams May Come," a fantasy afterlife drama starring Robin Williams.