Obit for a Carrier

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Navy photo / MC 3rd Class Jeff Atherton

The USS Enterprise heads home last fall after her 25th, and final, deployment since her commissioning in 1961.

The U.S.S. Enterprise has left the oceans. She is survived by 10 flat-topped behemoths. Services will be private.

Last month, the Big E, also known as CVN-65, left active-duty Navy service in a formal deactivation ceremony at Pier 12 in Norfolk, Va., attended by nearly 12,000 family members and close friends.

She was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, able to cruise at 30 knots, thanks to reactors generating more than 200,000 horsepower.

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Navy Photo / PM 2nd Class Douglas M. Pearlman

The Enterprise in the Atlantic a decade ago.

At 1,123 ft. (342 m), she was the longest warship in the history of the world.

She was the eighth vessel to bear the name Enterprise.

This Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the start of its maiden voyage from Norfolk. “She will reign a long, long time,” Navy Secretary John B. Connally Jr. predicted at her commissioning, “as queen of the seas.”

Admirals and sailors — not to mention Presidents — like to speak of these 100,000-ton monsters as “4 1/2 acres of sovereign U.S. territory.” So it’s a grim moment when one slips into history. Kind of like losing a state, or at least a territory. Albeit one that can move.

For a half-century, Enterprise carried about 60 aircraft around the globe, flinging them skyward from its four steam-powered catapults and enabling their landings with four arresting cables designed to catch their tailhooks. In May 2011 she became the fourth carrier to achieve 400,000 arrested landings.

But that’s all in the past. Hives of contractors are now buzzing aboard the Enterprise, docked at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, removing the tools, furniture and other flotsam that made Enterprise home for more than 100,000 sailors since she was commissioned in 1961.


Navy photo / MCS 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta aboard the Big E in 2012.

Spray-painted orange lines now deface her deck, not unlike those inked on a patient before surgery. The steel will be cut open so cranes can plumb the ship’s depths and haul away close to a half-billion dollars’ worth of gear that can be used aboard other ships.

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“After seeing the ship in action,” Lieut. Commander Sarah Self-Kyler told the hometown Virginian-Pilot newspaper last month, “it’s kind of depressing.”

The designation of ships with feminine pronouns suggests that for those who served aboard, Enterprise was more than mere metal; she was mortal. So do the nearly 50,000 Likes the ship has chalked up on her Facebook page.

And as with all aging relations, old salts’ questions don’t sound that different from those asked by young grandchildren as their parents’ parents pass from this life, even if the Navy’s official answers are as unsatisfying as those from Mom and Dad.

What’s going to happen to her?

Hydraulic systems will be drained and expendable materials, tools, spare parts and furnishings will be removed. Additionally, tanks containing oil and other fluids will be drained and cleaned, any hazardous material will be removed, and the ship’s electrical and lighting systems will be de-energized. Concurrent with inactivation, the ship will be defueled using the same proven techniques that have been used successfully to refuel and defuel over 350 Naval nuclear-powered warships.

Why can’t we just fix her up and keep her sailing?

The U.S.S. Enterprise has been in service for over 50 years. Many of the major components and other equipment are nearing the end of their useful life, and it is not cost effective to further extend Enterprise for combat operations.

Well, why can’t she be turned into a museum?

The cost to maintain a ship as a museum is generally cost prohibitive. As the ship is inactivated, equipment that may be of historic interest will be reclaimed and passed on to museums or appropriate Navy commands so Enterprise‘s many contributions to the nation’s defense over the past half-century are remembered.

Some of Enterprise‘s old sailors recall her fondly, if a bit mysteriously. “1978–1980,” one notes. “Did the WesPac78 w/Enterprise. An experience I won’t soon forget!”

Others are more somber. “Was on her in Cuba, attack squad 64 black lancers back in 1962,” one posts. “Said good by 2 weeks ago in Norfolk with two of my squadron buddies. I cried.”

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One woman wishes she could have attended Enterprise’s deactivation ceremony last month. “I would have like to have attended on behalf of my uncle,” she says. “He worked on the Enterprise when she was first constructed. He insulated pipes with asbestos. He died in 1974 from the asbestos. The print he received of the ship, with the letter from management attached on the back, hang on my bedroom wall. He was proud of his participation in building this ship.”


Navy photo

The U.S.S. Enterprise on Jan. 14, 1969.

Others recall her grimmest day: Jan. 14, 1969, when, while in the Pacific, a Zuni rocket accidentally exploded under the wing of an F-4, setting off an inferno that killed 27. “We fought hard, real hard, to keep her afloat during the 1969 fire please don’t let her die like this,” one former sailor pleads.

Yet most seem pleased just to have the chance to bid her fair winds and following seas. “I know that the Enterprise isn’t the youngest girl at the ball, but she can dance with the best of them,” one says. “My respect to the ship and the men and women who served on her.”

Enterprise will spend six months at Norfolk before being towed — towed! — some eight miles (13 km) or so to Newport News shipyard, where her keel was laid in February 1958, for more demolition work. Defueling her eight nuclear reactors (a pair per prop shaft) will begin there. Then she will be towed — there’s that word again! — 14,000 nautical miles around Cape Horn, at the southern end of South America, for final disposition at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state.


Navy Photo / Mike Carrado

At sea aboard the Enterprise, 1996.

In addition to the Navy’s 10 currently steaming carriers, three of the new Ford class are now under construction. The U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford will set sail in 2015, followed by the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in 2020.

The third ship of the class, the U.S.S. Enterprise, CVN-80, is slated to sail in 2025.

PHOTOS: War/Photography by Geoff Dyer