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The final frontier: decommissioning USS Enterprise

28 August 2013 Grant Turnbull




The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise has been assigned to the scrapyard. Engineers are de-fuelling the carrier and removing its reactors, a first for ship de-commissioning. This will be the last great engineering feat in Enterprise's record-breaking life.


When the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) launched in 1960, it represented the pinnacle of human design and engineering, only matched in that era by the Saturn V rocket which took man to the moon. Such was the influence of the USS Enterprise and space travel during the 1960s that television screenwriter Eugene Roddenberry used the name in his iconic TV series, Star Trek.

But unlike the fictional Starship Enterprise, captained by James T. Kirk, the USS Enterprise carrier really has boldly gone where no man has gone before.

"When the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) launched in 1960, it represented the pinnacle of human design and engineering."

During its 51 years of active service from 1961 to 2012, USS Enterprise has built up some staggering statistics: 250,000 sailors and officers served onboard, it has travelled more than one million nautical miles, seen more than 400,000 aircraft landings and deployed 25 times across the world.

It took part in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, launched F-4 Phantoms on missions to Vietnam and, more recently, supported operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) won the contract to build Enterprise in 1957, which they describe as 'one of the most significant contracts' in the history of the company. Every US aircraft carrier has been built at NNS's Virginia site since then, including the future Ford-Class carriers.

In November 1961 the USS Enterprise was commissioned and its first commanding officer, Captain Vincent P. De Poix, took charge. Even before it left Virginia for operational service, the vessel had already achieved new records in naval design and engineering.

A first for action

USS Enterprise was the first-ever aircraft carrier to be nuclear-powered. Eight reactors were installed with two powering each of the four propellers; later carriers only had two reactors. It was also the first time two nuclear reactors were harnessed together, as they had only been used individually before. Engineers were not even sure whether their designs would work.

"During its 51 years of active service from 1961 to 2012, USS Enterprise has built up some staggering statistics."

It remains the longest naval vessel ever at 1,123ft and, at the time, was the biggest ship ever to set sail in the US Navy. If Enterprise was stood on its end, it would be taller than the Shard in London.

When USS Enterprise was deactivated on 1 December 2012, it had notched up even more records and cemented its place in US naval history. In 1974, the first F-14 Tomcats to enter operational service flew off its deck. On April 29, 1986 it became the first-ever nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to transit the Suez Canal.

Enterprise's time in service has not been without tragedy. In January 1969, 27 crew members died when a Zuni rocket carried by the F-4 exploded and led to a huge fire.

The 'Big E', as Enterprise is affectionately known, also made history when it became one of the first units to respond to the September 11th attacks in 2001. Enterprise was initially on its way home from a long deployment, but instead steamed overnight to the North Arabian Sea to assist US forces. Before returning to the US on November 10, 2001, Enterprise had expended more than 800,000 lbs of ordnance in its short time supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Decommissioning a giant

"If Enterprise was stood on its end, it would be taller than the Shard in London."

USS Enterprise will be the first-ever nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be decommissioned. On 4 November 2012, Enterprise made its final ever journey into its home port at Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia. Some of the 250,000 people who served on the ship attended the inactivation ceremony on 1 December 2012 to say their final goodbyes.

Enterprise was towed to NNS's shipyard on June 21 2013, to begin the process of de-fuelling and removing the eight reactors which had served the ship so well for 50 years. Much of the ship's sensitive radar and communication equipment has already been removed along with various weapon systems. What remains is the skeletal, but no less impressive, hull, free of antennas and radar dishes.

Many items will be recycled and used for spare parts on the newer Nimitz Class carriers. The decommissioning phase is scheduled to be complete by 2016 and whatever remains will be taken to Washington State to be scrapped. Recent defence cuts have raised concerns about decommissioning costs, but the US Navy says it is still aiming to have the process complete in three years time.

President of Newport News Shipbuilding Matt Mulherin said: "Although it will be bittersweet as Enterprise leaves our shipyard for the final time, I want each and every shipbuilder to take pride in knowing that Newport News Shipbuilding doesn't just build great ships - we build legends."

Much of the work being carried out now is highly classified and little is known about the processes involved. The US Navy has never attempted such a complex decommissioning and much of what is being done is taking place for the very first time. Even in her final days, USS Enterprise is still making history.

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Radars have been removed, leaving behind a skeletal hull ready for decommissioning.
Enterprise was towed to NNS's shipyard to begin the process of de-fuelling.
USS Enterprise is berthed next to USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).
USS Enterprise being moved to complete outfitting in September 1960.
Sea trials began in late 1961 and by November of the same year she was commissioned.
In January 1969, 27 crew members died when a Zuni rocket carried by the F-4 exploded.
USS Enterprise was the first US Navy aircraft carrier to operate the F-14 Tomcat.
In 2011 USS Enterprise logged 400,000 arrested landings when an F/A-18 landed on it.
Some of the 250,000 people who served on the ship attended the inactivation ceremony.