USS Enterprise: The Aircraft Carrier That Changed Everything Turns 50

NEWPORT NEWS — Fifty years ago today the largest dry dock in the world filled with water from the James River, setting afloat the world’s largest ship and first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

At 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 1960, Mrs. William B. Franke, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the USS Enterprise as the rushing seawater freed it from its last keel block.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh A. Burke told some 12,000 guests at the christening ceremony that the 1,101-foot Big E was “the largest ship ever built of any kind by any nation,” containing the most powerful nuclear power plant ever constructed anywhere in the world.

Yard president William E. Blewett Jr. paid tribute to the thousands of workers who “labored with imagination, skill and pride to build a vessel worthy of its name.”

Today, the Enterprise sits across the harbor at Naval Station Norfolk, preparing for two final, six-month deployments before it’s decommissioned in 2012.

Neither the Navy nor the ship’s crew has planned an event to celebrate the milestone, preferring to wait until Nov. 25, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Enterprise becoming an official member of the fleet.

Nonetheless, when the one-of-a-kind supercarrier was launched that Saturday five decades ago, it cemented Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as the premier shipyard in the United States and positioned it as an indispensable asset even today.

“The Enterprise was seen not simply as the first of a new class of carriers, but a step in the transformation of the entire fleet,” said James C. Bradford, a Navy historian and professor at Texas A&M University.

To build the ship, the yard had to alter its facilities and dry dock to be able to accommodate the largest vessel ever constructed. Further, it had to train and retain a cadre of highly experienced and skilled workers to undertake the most complex shipbuilding project ever attempted.

“The Enterprise got (Newport News) the facility and the trained workforce. There was simply no other yard capable of doing this kind of work,” Bradford said. “Building the Enterprise really solidified Newport News Shipbuilding.”

Since the launch of the Enterprise, all 12 of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers have been built in Newport News, bringing billions of dollars of contracts and decades worth of work for tens of thousands in Hampton Roads.

It remains the only yard capable of building and refueling the nation’s fleet of aircraft carriers, a monopoly that’s provided the yard with a steady and lucrative stream of business, a line of work that will likely continue for decades to come.

“The success of the USS Enterprise led to the development of the … Nimitz class carriers, 10 of which are presently in service, providing an all-nuclear carrier force for the U.S. Navy,” said Tom Dougan, a spokesman for the Navy’s nuclear reactors division.

After completing the 10th and final ship of the Nimitz class, the George H.W. Bush, in 2009, Newport News began building the first ship in a new class of carriers, the Gerald R. Ford.

With a scheduled 2015 commissioning, the Ford would likely be back in Newport News around 2040 for its mid-life overhaul.

It’s all work for which the Big E paved the way.

The yard had built 17 carriers before the Enterprise, including ships in the Forrestal class and the Kitty Hawk class, but it wasn’t the only player in the business. The New York Naval Shipyard and New York Shipbuilding Co. each were building flattops at the time.

But the Enterprise was a different animal. Outfitted with eight nuclear reactors that would give it virtually unlimited range and a horsepower of 200,000, it was a marvel of modern engineering.

The Navy needed the nation’s best and brightest to design the experimental ship, which required 915 designers and more than 16,000 construction drawings — each done by hand with mechanical pencils and based on calculations done with sliderules.

Newport News Shipbuilding built the vessel between 1958 and 1961 at a cost of about $450 million (roughly $3.3 billion in today’s dollars).

The Enterprise was so expensive it forced the Navy to make the next two carriers, the Newport News-built America and John F. Kennedy, conventionally powered, rather than nuclear as originally planned.

“It was such a radical departure for the Navy,” said William J. Fowler Jr., a professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. “The Enterprise marked an extraordinary leap forward in the Navy’s ability to project power around the world.”

After decades of service that included dispatches to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Southeast Asia to support the war in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf to support the war in Iraq, the Enterprise has proved its worth many times over, Fowler said.

“Fifty years has demonstrated the wisdom of building capital ships with nuclear power,” he said. “For power projection alone, it’s of very valuable assistance. Even today, the Enterprise stands as a symbol of our capacity to innovate and our capacity to do great things as a nation.”

The Navy has plowed billions into keeping the matriarch of the fleet in service, a majority of which has funneled into Newport News.

The Enterprise has spent several years in the local yard for maintenance projects, a fact that spawned an oft-repeated saying on the waterfront: “There are two kinds of people who work here: Those who have worked on the Enterprise, and those who will.”

In its final tuneup completed this spring, the Navy spent $662 million to prepare the Enterprise for two final deployments.

When it came out of the yard for sea trials, the oldest ship in the U.S. Fleet was “just as capable and effective” as any other commissioned aircraft carrier, said Matt Vincent, the aircraft carrier sea trials coordinator for Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Newport News shipyard.

Vincent, who served aboard the Enterprise in the mid-1990s as a Navy Lt. j.g., credited the carrier’s longevity to the care that went into designing the ship and endless restoration work and upkeep by the shipyard and the ship’s varied crews.

“When you step aboard, you can almost feel the history of the ship,” said Vincent, who noted he was born 16 days before the Enterprise was commissioned. “After all those years, she hasn’t lost a step.”

The Navy’s plans call for the Enterprise to be decommissioned in November 2012. Following that ceremony, it will come back to Newport News a final time to be dismantled.

50 Years Of Enterprise

Nov. 15, 1957: Navy awards contract to built Enterprise to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co.

Feb. 4, 1958: NNS lays keel of Enterprise

Sept. 24, 1960: Enterprise launched and christened in Newport News

Nov. 25, 1961: Enterprise commissioned in Newport News

Oct. 1962: President John F. Kennedy dispatches Enterprise to Cuba for blockade

Nov. 1964: After travelling more than 200,000 miles and recovering 42,000 aircraft, Enterprise returns to Newport News for first refueling and overhaul.

Nov. 1965: Enterprise reassigned to the South Pacific, supporting aircraft strikes on Vietnam

July 1967: Enterprise enters San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard for a limited maintenance period

January 1968: Ship ordered to North Korea for nearly a month after patrol boat captures U.S. research ship, the Pueblo.

Oct. 1969: Enterprise returns to Newport News for year-long overhaul and refueling.

July 1971: Enterprise returns to South Pacific to support aircraft strikes on Vietnam

Dec. 1971: Ship shifted to Bay of Bengal during Indo-Pakistani war

March 1972: Begins short maintenance at San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard

October 1972: Enterprise is back in the South Pacific supporting air strikes on Vietnam

July 1973: Arrives at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., to be refitted to support F-14 Tomcat aircraft

Feb. 1975: After a typhoon struck island nation of Mauritius, Enterprise arrives at Port Louis to provide disaster relief

April 1975: Enterprise deployed again to Vietnam to help evacuate Americans and friendly Vietnamese

Jan. 1979: Enterprise returns to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a 30-month maintenance

April 1983: Enterprise runs aground on a sandbar in the San Francisco Bay, where it remains stranded for about five hours

May 1983: Begins short maintenance at San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard

Nov. 1985: Enterprise damaged after striking a portion of Bishop Rock off the coast of California. Shifts to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for an emergency maintenance.

April 1986: Enterprise becomes first nuclear-powered carrier to transit the Suez Canal

Jan. 1987: Big E spends three months at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for maintenance

April 1988: Enterprise arrives off the coast of Jask, Iran; supported two airstrikes on Iranian frigates

Oct. 1988: Enterprise spends six months in maintenance at Alameda, Calif.

March 1990: Ship arrives in new homeport in Norfolk

October 1990: Enterprise moves to Newport News for its mid-life refueling and complex overhaul 18 days early to avoid Hurricane Lili

April 1994: Completes sea trials and returns for a post-overhaul maintenance

July 1995: Moves back to homeport in Norfolk

June 1996: Enterprise begins 15th overseas deployment, the first since its major overhaul

Feb. 1997: Ship returns to Newport News for four-month maintenance

Nov. 1998: Four crew members die when a Prowler collided with a S-3 Viking on the ship’s deck

Nov. 1998: Enterprise heads back to the Persian Gulf, hosts President George H.W. Bush and musical group Hootie and the Blowfish

June 1999: Returns to Norfolk and Newport News for a six-month maintenance period

Sept. 2001: Following the attacks of 9/11, Enterprise stations about 100 miles off the coast of Pakistan

Oct. 2001: Enterprise-based aircraft fly nearly 700 bombing missions over Afghanistan

Nov. 2001: Enterprise returns to Norfolk. During last day at sea, the ship hosted Good Morning America. In Norfolk, Garth Brooks and Jewel performed aboard the ship.

Jan. 2002: Enterprise arrives in Portsmouth at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for 482-day maintenance.

Oct. 2003: Arrives back in the Persian Gulf to support Operation Iraqi Freedom

Sept. 2004: The Big E comes back to Newport News for maintenance.

May 2006: Departs on a six-month deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom

Nov. 2006: Returns to Norfolk

June 2007: Enterprise takes another trip to the Persian Gulf for a six-month deployment

April 2008: The Big E arrives in Newport News for its final extended dry-dock maintenance

April 2010: The Enterprise finally leaves Newport News after a $662 million project to prepare it for two final deployments

Sept. 2010: Ship is stationed at Naval Station Norfolk preparing for deployment.

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