NORFOLK, Va. - The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was retired from active service on Saturday, temporarily reducing the number of carriers in the U.S. fleet to 10 until 2015.
The USS Enterprise ended its notable 51-year career during a ceremony at its home port at Naval Station Norfolk, where thousands of former crew members, ship builders and their families lined a pier to bid farewell to one of the most decorated ships in the Navy.
"It'll be a special memory. The tour yesterday was a highlight of the last 20 years of my life. I've missed the Enterprise since every day I walked off of it," said Kirk McDonnell, a former interior communications electrician aboard the ship from 1983 to 1987 who now lives in Highmore, S.D.
The Enterprise was the largest ship in the world at the time it was built, earning the nickname "Big E." It didn't have to carry conventional fuel tanks for propulsion, allowing it to carry twice as much aircraft fuel and ordnance than conventional carriers at the time. Using nuclear reactors also allowed the ship to set speed records and stay out to sea during a deployment without ever having to refuel, one of the times ships are most vulnerable to attack.
"Nuclear propulsion changed everything," said Adm. John Richardson, director of Naval Reactors.
Every other aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet is now nuclear powered, although they only have two nuclear reactors each compared to the Enterprise's eight. The Enterprise was the only carrier of its class ever built.
It was only designed to last 25 years, but underwent a series of upgrades to extend its life, making it the oldest active combat vessel in the fleet
The ship served in every major conflict since participating in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, helping earn its motto of "We are Legend."
Enterprise was headed back to Virginia following a regularly scheduled deployment when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. As soon as the ship's captain saw the attacks he turned around without orders to steam toward southwest Asia, where it later launched some of the first attacks against Afghanistan. The ship's captain was Adm. James A. Winnefeld, who now serves as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It has been returning to that region of the world ever since then, including during its 25th and final deployment that ended last month.
"She just served on the cutting edge at the tip of the spear when she returned here in November," Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert said. "It's shown that the aircraft carrier can evolve as a platform with many payloads relevant for five decades and will be part of our national security for the foreseeable future as we bring on the Gerald Ford to replace the Enterprise."
The Gerald R. Ford will be the first of a new class of aircraft carriers, but it will be several more years before it joins the fleet. Temporarily reducing the number of aircraft carriers to 10 required special congressional approval. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said the Navy would closely watch how the increased operational tempo will affect sailors. In February, the USS Abraham Lincoln will begin a four-year refueling complex overhaul in Newport News, Va., which will also take it out of rotation.
Greenert said the Navy wants to continue having two aircraft carriers operating simultaneously in the Middle East through March, but he said he wasn't sure if that would continue past then.
While the Enterprise was inactivated Saturday, it will be several more years before it is fully decommissioned. Its nuclear fuel must first be removed by punching gigantic holes in the ship, rendering it unfit for service or turning it into a museum. It will eventually be towed to Washington state for scrapping.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was the eighth U.S. ship to bear the name Enterprise, but it won't be the last. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a video message that a future aircraft carrier would be named USS Enterprise, after the delivery of the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS John F. Kennedy.
Mabus' announcement drew a standing ovation from those on hand at Saturday's ceremony. Current and former crew members have lobbied heavily to preserve Enterprise's name so its legacy will live on.
"It just seems to be a neat name for a ship. It's better than being named for a politician," said Larry Kosnopfal, one of the ship's original crew members, who now lives in Chadfield, Minn.
When the future USS Enterprise joins the fleet, its commanding officer will be handed a 200-pound time capsule filled with Enterprise memorabilia that includes notes from sailors, insignia and small pieces of the ship. The time capsule was delivered to Greenert for safekeeping until that future commanding officer is chosen.