USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65): A LOOK BACK
Most sailors get to see the world. I got to see a part of history in the making.
It was back in the early '90s that I was stationed aboard the United States aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65). We were in dry dock at the time at Newport News Shipbuilding And Drydock Company in Newport News, Virginia, and when I reported for duty I must say that what I walked upon took my breath away. Besides her sheer size, which was impressive enough on her own, the fact that she was literally out of the water, propped up on huge wooden blocks was an amazing site to behold. It's an image I will never forget.
And still in the building phase next door to us was the brand new USS George Washington. It too was a remarkable site. In the end, that together these two ships became whole nearly side by side at Newport News, it seemed only fitting that they would find themselves docked alongside each other when they finally arrived at their new home at Norfolk Naval Base. The Enterprise was at Pier 11 North. The Washington was at Pier 11 South. Even newer, farther down in the yards, was the USS John C. Stennis, then nothing more than a skeleton frame.
On its own, the shipbuilding process is something of an amazing feat. It really is a massive undertaking requiring years of intense, detail oriented work, and thousands of highly skilled men and women to transform piles of indiscernable, shapeless iron and steel into a mighty warship. Watching that transformation unfold first-hand, and being a part of that process is something that will forever give me great pride, and pause.
Enterprise entered the yards in 1991 after a successful world tour, having sailed nearly 43,000 miles, visiting ports in the Phillipine Islands, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and she even made a brief stop in Ft.Lauderdale. Already a major fixture in American naval history, it was during her time in Newport News that she would make yet more history, as she would undergo what would become one of the largest, most complex overhauls ever to be attempted.
Onboard we called it SOAR, or ship's overhaul and rehabilitation. It was a part of SLEP, or the service life extension program. It was also known as RCOH, or refueling and complex overhaul.
Whatever the acronym, the USS Enterprise was set to get a makeover unlike any other. She'd have new radar systems, new weapons systems, and rebuilt catapult systems. For all practical purposes, the Enterprise would be stripped down nearly to her bare bones. All of the officer's staterooms, regular crew's berthing compartments, mess decks, and heads—everything was getting a facelift. Even her length would be increased from 1,101 ft. to 1,123 ft.
When all was said and done, Enterprise would be as long as four football fields, or nearly 1/4 of a mile from fore to stern.
Of course there was enormous cost attached to the entire project as well. Many times I can remember admirals charged with appropriations coming aboard who were there to determine that the money being spent was justified. At any time they could have pulled the plug on the entire operation if they came away with the idea that rebuilding the Enterprise was something of an impossible dream. After all, taxpayers were going to have to shell out billions of dollars more to rebuild the USS Enterprise than it would have ever cost to simply scrap her and build a new one. And certainly the process took longer, adding yet more cost. When her first beam of steel was laid in 1958 it only took around 2 1/2 years to build her. She would spend nearly four years in SLEP by the time she finally left for sea trials in 1994.
From purely an economic perspective, it would have made perfect sense to retire her. She's certainly the oldest ship still active in the entire fleet. Commissioned in November 1961, that makes The Big "E," as she is affectionately called, 49 years old. And over her long life she's already cost us a ton of money. If you count her initial construction cost adjusted for inflation, and the cost of a couple of re-fittings, she is perhaps, also the most expensive ship ever built. Even during her construction the Enterprise's price tag curtailed the building of five other naval ships at the time. The last life extension won't be paid off until around 2014, though ironically she is scheduled to be decommissioned in just 2013.
What keeps the Enterprise afloat now, and what kept its complex overhaul afloat then, is Enterprise's very place in historical chronicles spanning more than 100 years. There have been 8 naval vessels in U.S. Naval history to bear the name Enterprise. Even after the current Big E embarks on her final voyage, I have every reason to believe that she will not be the last to be so named. It is entirely possible, as well, that the next Enterprise could lead the way in a line of an entirely new class of aircraft carriers. In a way, It would seem rather fitting. After all, the current Enterprise has always been in a class of her own in size, and in hull design. She was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to ever be built, and before the newer Nimitz-Class carriers, she was also the largest warship in the fleet.
Every sailor has a love for his ship. But no ship in the fleet is more endeared than the ones which have ever beared the name Enterprise.
I served in the United States Navy for only a short four years between 1992 and 1996. I was with the Enterprise through most of the SLEP, and went with her for sea trials and flight deck recertification after she left Newport News in '94.
As I said before, most sailors get to see the world. They get to travel to faraway, exotic places. And perhaps somewhere there is still a part of me that wants to have experienced such travels as well. I know it would have been fantastic. My father served in the navy for 23-years, and he always had a story to tell.
Still, I was a part of history. I was witness to the makings of a mighty vessel. I was part of a dedicated crew of United States Navy sailors who worked day and night alongside master shipbuilders to return to sea, and to return to the service of her country, one of the greatest, most historical warships ever to set sail in American naval history.
For that I have no regrets. I have only a profound sense of pride, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.
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