• Storied carrier makes final voyage
     | March 11,2012
    AP Photo

    Crew members clean the deck of the USS Enterprise, docked at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., on Thursday in preparation for the carrier’s final deployment today.

    NORFOLK, Va. — When the makers of “Top Gun” were filming on board the USS Enterprise, they donated a set of black fuzzy dice to liven up the ship’s otherwise drab interior.

    A quarter-century later, the dice will still be dangling inside the tower of “the Big E” as the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sets sail on its final voyage today.

    The trinket is a reminder of the ship’s storied 50-year history that includes action in several wars, a prominent role in the Cuban missile crisis and serving as a spotter ship for John Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth.

    “To serve on this ship, certainly in this capacity, you certainly have to be a student of the ship’s history,” said Rear Adm. Walter Carter, commander of the Enterprise strike group. “Fifty years of service, in our nation’s history, we’ve never had a warship in service that long.”

    The Enterprise is the longest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet. It is also the oldest, a distinction that brings pride as well as plenty of headaches for the ship’s more than 4,000 crew members. The ship is effectively a small city that frequently needs repairs because of its age. It was originally designed to last 25 years, but a major overhaul in 1979 and other improvements have extended its life.

    Machinists in charge of fixing unexpected problems say the things that can break down range from critical air conditioner units to elevators that lift fighter jets from the hangar bay to the flight deck. Moreover, the Enterprise has eight nuclear reactors to maintain — six more than any other U.S. carrier.

    The ship regularly has to make its own parts from scratch when something breaks down. Spare parts for much of the ship, which is the only one of its class, simply don’t exist.

    “Life is hard on Enterprise,” said Capt. William Hamilton, the ship’s commanding officer. “But when they leave here, they leave knowing if they can do this, they can do anything.”

    The Enterprise is heading to the Middle East on its seven-month deployment, where it will be on standby in case of conflict with Iran or piracy threats off Somalia, among other things.

    After its return to Virginia in the fall, tens of thousands are expected to be on hand for a deactivation ceremony Dec. 1 that President Barack Obama has been invited to attend.

    The following summer, Enterprise will be towed to the shipyard where it was built in nearby Newport News so its nuclear fuel can be removed, a process that will take until 2015 and involves cutting large holes in the vessel. What remains of the ship after that will be taken to Washington state so it can be scrapped.

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