Training Program Simulates USS Fitzgerald Collision

USS Fitzgerald

By The Maritime Executive 02-24-2018 09:21:17

The U.S. Navy has created a training simulation to recreate the chain of errors that led to the collision of the USS Fitzgerald and the merchant ship ACX Crystal off Japan last year.

According to USNI News, the new scenario on the Surface Warfare Officer School bridge simulator takes radar data, ship tracks and other open source information and recreates the experience of being on the bridge of the destroyer in the lead up to the collision which occurred on June 17. Seven Sailors lost their lives, and the ship was damaged on the starboard side above and below the waterline.

The U.S. Navy released its final public report on the collision last last year. The USS Fitzgerald timeline appears to show a series of decisions and oversights that put her in close quarters situations more than once on the night of her encounter with the ACX Crystal – often without notification to her commanding officer, as required by standing orders.

At 1630 hours on June 16, the USS Fitzgerald got under way from Yokosuka, Japan, making a course southbound for sea. At 2300 hours, her commanding officer, executive officer and navigator left the bridge, leaving the officer of the deck with the conn.

USS Fitzgerald approached the vessel traffic separation (VTS) scheme north of Oshima Island and came to a course of 190 at 20 knots. Her pre-approved navigation track did not account for or follow the area’s VTS patterns, she was not broadcasting an AIS signal and all her exterior lights were extinguished (except for navigation lights). 

At 0108, USS Fitzgerald crossed the bow of a ship at approximately 650 yards, passed a second vessel at two nautical miles and a third vessel at 2.5 nautical miles. In contravention of standing orders, no reports of these three encounters were made to the commanding officer.

At 0110, USS Fitzgerald's watchstanders noted the radar signature of the container ship ACX Crystal at 11 nautical miles, and they attempted to initiate a radar track on her, without success. At 0117, the OOD plotted a track on a vessel that he believed to be the ACX Crystal, and determined that the contact would pass at 1,500 yards on the starboard side. 

At 0120, the junior officer of the deck visually sighted ACX Crystal and noted that her course would coincide with USS Fitzgerald's track. The OOD remained convinced that ACX Crystal would pass at a safe distance, even after the junior officer advised him to slow down. Two other ships – the Wan Hai and Maersk Evora – were also approaching with close closest point of approach (CPA), and there were over a dozen other contacts in the vicinity. 

At 0127, with the ACX Crystal closing fast, the OOD ordered a fifty degree turn to starboard, then rescinded the command and ordered full speed ahead and hard to port. The actions were delayed as the Conning Officer “froze” in the moment. The OOD and the Conning Officer both began to shout orders to the helm.

At 0129, two minutes and 1,200 yards of forward travel later, the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch put the rudder over hard left and pushed the ship’s throttles forward.

At 0130:34, the ACX Crystal struck the USS Fitzgerald amidships on the starboard side, crushing the commanding officer's cabin and creating a 12-foot by 17-foot hole below the waterline, leading to rapid flooding in a machinery space and a berthing area. 

At no point did the bridge watchstanders on ACX Crystal or USS Fitzgerald make radio contact. In addition, Fitzgerald's watchstanders did not sound the general alarm to warn their shipmates of an impending collision. 

The Navy concluded that the USS Fitzgerald collision was avoidable. Specifically, she appears to have violated COLREGS in several ways:

- She was not operated at a safe speed appropriate to the number of other ships in the immediate vicinity.
- She failed to maneuver early as required with risk of collision present.
- She failed to notify other ships of danger and to take proper action in extremis.
- Watchstanders performing physical look out duties did so only on USS Fitzgerald's left (port) side, not on the right (starboard) side where the three ships were present with risk of collision.

In addition: 

- Watch team members responsible for radar operations failed to properly tune and adjust radars to maintain an accurate picture of other ships in the area.
- Supervisors responsible for maintaining the navigation track and position of other ships were unaware of existing traffic separation schemes and the expected flow of traffic, and did not utilize the Automated Identification System to gather information on nearby vessel traffic. 
- Her approved navigation track did not account for, nor follow, the Vessel Traffic Separation Schemes in the area.

USS Fitzgerald's commanding officer, executive officer, master chief and several of her watchstanders were relieved of duty. Former USS Fitzgerald commander Cmdr. Bryce Benson is expected to be charged with hazarding a vessel, dereliction of duty and negligent homicide. In addition, two Lieutenants and one Lieutenant Junior Grade from the USS Fitzgerald face charges. A USS Fitzgerald Chief Petty Officer also faces charges of dereliction of duty, and administrative actions are being conducted for four crew members.