The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was retired from active service on Saturday, temporarily reducing the number of carriers in the US fleet to 10 until 2015.
The USS Enterprise ended its notable 51-year career during a ceremony at its home port in Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, where thousands of former crew, ship builders and their families lined a pier to bid farewell to one of the US Navy’s most decorated ships.
“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.
The Enterprise was the largest ship in the world at the time it was built, earning the nickname “Big E.” It did not 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 it to set speed records and stay out to sea during a deployment without having to refuel.
Every other aircraft carrier in the US 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 designed to last 25 years, but underwent a series of upgrades to extend its life, making it the fleet’s oldest active combat vessel.
The ship served in every major conflict since participating in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, earning it the motto: “We are Legend.”
The Enterprise was headed back to Virginia following a regularly scheduled deployment when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US 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 US Navy Admiral James A. Winnefeld, who is now the vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Enterprise has been returning to the region since then, including during its 25th and final deployment last month.
While the Enterprise was inactivated on 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.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was the eighth US ship to bear the name Enterprise, but it will not be the last. US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a video message that a future aircraft carrier would be named the USS Enterprise, an announcement that drew a standing ovation at Saturday’s ceremony.
Current and former crew members have lobbied heavily to preserve the Enterprise’s name so its legacy will live on.
When the future USS Enterprise joins the fleet, its commanding officer will be handed a 90kg time capsule filled with Enterprise memorabilia.