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 without ever having to refuel, a time when ships are 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 designed to last only 25 years but underwent a series of life-extending upgrades.
The ship served in every major conflict since participating in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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.
It has been returning to that region of the world ever since then. Its 25th and final deployment ended last month.