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CHIPS Articles: USS Enterprise (CVN 65) – "We Are Legend"

USS Enterprise (CVN 65) – "We Are Legend"
By Sharon Anderson - January-March 2013
Not every ship can make such a boast but there is no doubt the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) has earned the right in its 51 years of service. Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, served in every major conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962: six deployments in support of the Vietnam War and through the Cold War and Gulf wars.

Enterprise commemorates a name that has been a continuing symbol of the great struggle to preserve American liberty, justice and freedom since the first days of the American Revolutionary War. It is the eighth ship in the fleet to carry the illustrious name that is defined by boldness, power and innovation.

The first Enterprise originally belonged to the British and cruised Lake Champlain to supply posts in Canada. After the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by the Americans May 10, 1775, it became apparent to Benedict Arnold that he would not have control of Lake Champlain until its capture. On May 18, he surprised and stormed the British garrison at St. John’s on the Richelieu in Canada and took possession of the 70-ton sloop. Arnold named it Enterprise.

The seventh Enterprise (CV 6) was the first of the Enterprise ships to receive the nickname of "Big E" — other nicknames included the "Lucky E" — the "Grey Ghost" — and the "Galloping Ghost." CV-6 became the sixth aircraft carrier to join the U.S. Navy fleet upon its commissioning Oct. 3, 1936. After its heroic World War II service, the first Big E was decommissioned Feb. 17, 1947 — as the most decorated ship in U.S. naval history.

Enterprise VIII (CVN 65)

In 1954, Congress authorized the construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65). The giant ship would be powered by eight nuclear reactors, two for each of its four propeller shafts. This was an enormous undertaking because never before had two nuclear reactors ever been harnessed together. When the engineers first started planning the ship’s propulsion system, they were uncertain how it would work, or even if it would work according to their theories. After years of planning and exhaustive work by thousands of engineers, designers, welders, and more, she was commissioned Nov. 25, 1961.

In October 1962, Enterprise and other ships in the U.S. 2nd Fleet were dispatched to set up a naval blockade around Cuba when it was discovered that the Soviet Union had built nuclear missile sites on the island. The aim of this "quarantine," as President John F. Kennedy called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. The President demanded the immediate removal of the missiles already there and destruction of the missile bases. The first Soviet ship was stopped Oct. 25, and Oct. 28, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the nuclear sites, concluding the Cuban Missile Crisis — and averting nuclear war.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Enterprise was headed to Naval Station Norfolk after a long deployment when its commanding officer ordered the ship to turn around and head toward Southwest Asia, where it later launched some of the first attacks in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The ship's captain at the time is now the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James A. Winnefeld.

Another defining moment in the ship’s history occurred in 1969 on the morning of Jan. 14 when an explosion erupted due to an overheated rocket attached to a parked F-4 Phantom. The initial explosion caused other armed aircraft to ignite spreading fires and additional explosions across the flight deck. The fires were brought quickly under control, in comparison to previous carrier flight deck fires, and were finally extinguished four hours later.

Forty-three years later, while underway in the Atlantic Ocean, Jan. 14, 2012, Sailors and Marines assigned to USS Enterprise paused to remember the catastrophic fire probably for the last time. Former crew members recalled that day both as Enterprise’s worst tragedy and its finest hour as the crew fought bravely to save the ship. Twenty-seven Sailors perished and 314 were injured, and despite the valiant efforts of the crew, Enterprise was heavily damaged during the fire.

Repairs were completed in April 1969 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and then Enterprise proceeded as scheduled on deployment to Vietnam and the Tonkin Gulf. The fire not only changed damage control and firefighting for the Enterprise, it improved techniques and training across the fleet. Many lessons learned from that tragedy are still used by the Navy today.

Enterprise has also had its share of Hollywood glamour. The hugely popular 1986 movie "Top Gun" was filmed aboard the Enterprise featuring daring young naval aviators that captured the imagination of young adults across America who wanted to emulate the skill and bravado of the F-14 Tomcat fighter pilots in the action-drama. When production concluded the movie producers donated a pair of black fuzzy dice which are still on display in Primary Flight Control or “Pri-Fly” 26 years later.

During its memorable history, Enterprise chalked up some amazing statistics: 25 deployments, 10 major operations and 400,000 arrested landings. On Enterprise’s final deployment, which lasted eight months, it transited through the Strait of Hormuz 10 times to protect freedom of the seas.

Ultimately, it’s not the number of deployments, Hollywood movie or impressive statistics that make up a ship’s legacy — it’s the crew — its heart and soul. The Navy estimates that 100,000 Sailors have served on the Enterprise and many former crew members joined the current crew during inactivation week — a weeklong celebration of Enterprise history which culminated in an inactivation ceremony Dec. 1 on board Naval Station Norfolk. During inactivation week veterans and friends of the “Big E” were given the opportunity to tour the ship. About 8,000 visitors toured Enterprise that week, while the inactivation ceremony drew about 12,000 attendees.

Legendary Crew and Ship

CHIPS staff joined about 1,000 other enthusiastic well-wishers Nov. 29 for a tour of the Enterprise. Among those we met was a man who said he had been fascinated with the Enterprise since he was a small boy. He and his young son tackled the 15-hour drive from Kenosha,Wisconsin, to Norfolk for the tour and were lucky enough to score tickets for the inactivation ceremony. We met retired, teary-eyed shipyard workers, pilots, crew members, schoolchildren — and the curious — all fascinated by the historic ship and exceedingly moved to be aboard Enterprise for the final farewell.

A carrier has approximately 18 levels, including eight above the ship’s enormous hangar bay and 10 decks below. The “island” or superstructure above the flight deck contains the bridge, where the commanding officer monitors flights and oversees operations, and the flag bridge, where the admiral and staff can watch operations and conduct task force planning. Our group eagerly clambered up and down the ship's ladders leading to most of the 18 levels on Enterprise.

Topside, the 4.5 acres of flight deck looked particularly desolate without Enterprise’s usual complement of 60 to 70 aircraft, including F/A-18E and F Super Hornets, E-2C Hawkeyes, EA-6B Prowlers, SH-60F Seahawk helicopters, C-2 Greyhounds (carrier onboard delivery aircraft) and Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets. Enterprise’s air wing, Carrier Air Wing One, with about 1,300 personnel, had flown off the Enterprise days before its return to Norfolk Nov. 4.

Our tour guide, Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 3rd Class Benji Long, was joined by Airmen Sean Condon and Eric Murphy to escort our group of 15. We began on the bridge where we met Quartermaster 2nd Class Thomas Sanborn, who along with several other Sailors, was standing watch.

Sanborn explained that he was manning the ship’s signal flags on the lookout for a man overboard, computing tidal data, conducting weather observation, and generally vigilant for any type of emergency. He showed us the Enterprise’s position on a nautical chart and pointed to several areas of interest in the waters off Norfolk Naval Station. He explained that while newer ships in the fleet use an electronic navigation system, Enterprise relied on paper navigation charts and compass to plot course. "It didn’t slow us down though," Sanborn said. "We were still the fastest ship in the Navy."

While other nuclear-powered carriers have four nuclear reactors, Enterprise’s eight allowed it to sail more than 35 miles an hour in the open seas.

Next stop, Pri-Fly, a level up from the bridge, where we saw the famous fuzzy dice and were briefed by ABH2 Jenna Weddel. The small room towers seven stories above Enterprise's flight deck. The panoramic view of deck operations below provides Sailors with a bird’s eye view of flight ops. Monitoring an average of 90 aircraft take-offs and arrested landings on a daily basis while the ship is deployed, often with less than a minute (sometimes seconds) between launch and recovery operations, the Pri-Fly crew must continuously survey all flight and deck operations to help keep personnel safe in one of the world's most dangerous working environments. The "Air Boss" and "Mini Boss" are in charge of all Pri-Fly operations, which cover all aircraft activity within a five-mile radius of the ship.

Using a number of advanced radar systems and constant communication with the pilots, aircraft from up to 50 miles away from the ship are monitored by personnel located in the CATCC, or carrier air traffic control center. Even with advanced radar systems, landing 30-ton jets can still be difficult. Problems that may occur include: low fuel, engine or landing gear problems, and any number of emergency landing situations, Long said.

More ladders to navigate, and on to flight deck control, which is the central location for all operations that involve any flight deck maneuver. From foreign object debris walk downs, refueling jets, to launching and recovering aircraft, the crew in flight deck control coordinates operations by means of a "ouija board" — a scaled down version of the flight deck sized to 1/16 inch to one foot, mounted on a table and populated with miniature aircraft.

The atmosphere in flight deck control was definitely laid back, with no aircraft on board to worry about; aircraft handlers had time to describe flight operations for those touring the ship. The camaraderie of the air crew was obvious and no wonder they work 15 to 16-hour days while deployed relying on each other to ensure the safety of personnel and multimillion-dollar aircraft.

Several off-duty Sailors had brought their active toddlers on board for a visit. At one point, an inquisitive baby grabbed a plane from the ouija board while his mom remarked that she moved those planes around all day. Long said, "We are like family here; even during our time off we like to hang out with each other."

Sailors in flight deck control must keep aircraft handlers informed of flight deck movements. The handler displays the aircraft's movement and location on the ouija board, and it is the handler's job to confirm all aircraft are in the appropriate location during flight operations. The handler's main task is to make sure the flight deck off-load equipment has enough room for jets to maneuver, not only for launch and recovery missions, but refueling as well.

"We can get a call from [air crew] on deck, someone could just want to open the wings on a plane but he has to call down here [flight deck control] for permission first," Long said.

The hangar bay covers 3.5 acres, and four elevators move aircraft between the hangar bay and flight deck. There are four steam catapults to launch aircraft.

Long’s berthing compartment was nearby so we headed there next, where he graciously showed us his rack (bunk), storage locker and a communal shower. Spaces were cramped but our group gamely took turns inspecting everything that Long and his cohorts were willing to show us. One Sailor passing in the opposite direction marveled, “He’s showing them the bathrooms?” Clearly, our tour guides were proud to present every inch of the Enterprise for inspection.

From there we saw the general mess for the crew, Chiefs’ Mess and Wardroom, each stocked with an appetizing variety of fresh salads and fruit, as well as fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. We didn’t tour these, but Enterprise also has a general store, two gyms, two barber shops, laundromat, print shop, chapel, library, television station and studio, coffee shop, and a daily newspaper distributed when the ship was underway.

Next we moved to damage control, sick bay and the ship’s forecastle (pronounced fowk-sul and commonly abbreviated as "fo'c's'le"). The forecastle is the forward part of the main deck and is home to the ship’s ground tackle, all the equipment used in anchoring. Ground tackle is one of the most vital parts of a ship’s equipment since its safety can depend upon the proper use of this gear. We examined the anchor windlass, equipped with capstan head, massive anchor chains and the chain locker. Interestingly, the forecastle, because of its large open space, is also used to hold ceremonies.

In sick bay, corpsmen provided a snapshot of the Enterprise’s medical capabilities and reported that most crew injuries were broken bones and bumped heads resulting from rushing up and down ladders or failing to duck under low bulkheads. Still, the ship’s doctor and corpsmen can handle virtually any medical emergency while more complicated cases may require airlift to a hospital when the ship is deployed.

In damage control, personnel use equipment and techniques to prevent or minimize damage caused by battle, fire, collision, grounding and explosion. Personnel are also trained in defensive measures used to mitigate the effects of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological and radiological warfare.

Inactivation Phase

The Enterprise will remain at Naval Station Norfolk for approximately six months to off-load equipment and to make the ship ready for tow to Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipyard for inactivation. The inactivation phase will last about four years in which hydraulic systems will be drained and expendable materials, tools, spare parts and furnishings will be removed.

Additionally, tanks containing oil and other fluids will be drained and cleaned, any hazardous material will be removed, and the ship's electrical and lighting systems will be de-energized.

Concurrent with inactivation, the ship will be defueled using the same proven techniques that have been used successfully to refuel and defuel more than 350 naval nuclear-powered warships. The ship will also be prepared to be towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in 2017 for dismantling and recycling.

Most of the crew will be reassigned to other commands shortly after inactivation. A smaller group will stay with the ship serving as watch standers until the reactors are completely defueled. Some will remain during the tow to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

During the tour, we chatted with the Enterprise’s pleasant and highly professional crew — in many ways — the best part of the tour. Most were anxious to hear of their next assignment. Long said he hoped to be headed for a career change and acceptance into "A" School for hospital corpsman. A few were looking forward to shore duty while most we talked with were going to other carriers and back to sea.

Crew members were cheerfully anticipating the holidays in port. Airman Eric Murphy said he has been enjoying his wife’s cooking since the ship’s return; it was what he missed most while deployed. Airman Sean Condon said he was just glad to hang out with his friends — most of whom are Enterprise shipmates.

In a video played at the inactivation ceremony, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the name Enterprise will live on as he officially passed the name to CVN 80, the third Ford-class carrier and the ninth ship in the U.S. Navy to bear the name. Nostalgic Enterprise veterans old and new were delighted to hear the news.

USS Enterprise (CVN 65) Facts and Stats

Keel Laid: Feb. 4, 1958
Launched: Sept. 24, 1960
Commissioned: Nov. 25, 1961
Maiden Voyage: Jan. 12, 1962
Inactivation: Dec. 1, 2012
Ship's Company: 3,100
Air Wing: 1,300
Embarked Staffs : 200
Air Wing: CVW-1 (Carrier Air Wing ONE)
Staffs Include: Carrier Strike Group Twelve and Destroyer Squadron Two

Armament: Multiple NATO Sea Sparrow, Phalanx CIWS, and Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) mounts

Enterprise’s Final Deployment

  • 239 days deployed (270 of 308 days in 2012 underway)
  • 80,968 miles steamed
  • 39 restricted water transits
  • 10 Strait of Hormuz transits
  • 2 Bab el-Mandeb transits
  • 2 Suez Canal transits
  • 1 Strait of Messina tran
  • sit
  • 38 replenishments at sea
  • 7 port visits
  • 15 Pre-action Aim Calibration (PA C) fire on the Close-in Weapon System (CIWS) expending 6,750 rounds.

The Enterprise Medical Department had 25,150 patient encounters, filled more than 10,000 prescriptions, performed 1,189 radiology exams, 5,494 laboratory tests, conducted 77 emergent and same-day surgical procedures and managed more than 59 medical evacuations from seven different ships at sea.

The supply team handled more than 700,000 pounds of mail, prepared more than 3 million meals, baked more than 300,000 cookies, processed more than 500,000 pounds of laundry, gave more than 25,000 haircuts and expedited 6,000 priority parts valued at $250 million to keep Enterprise’s jets flying.

For More Information

Sharon Anderson is the CHIPS senior editor. She can be reached at

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 3, 2012) The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) underway in the Atlantic Ocean after completing a 7-and-a-half month deployment to support operations in the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. Enterprise is completing its final deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Ryan de Vera.
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 3rd Class Benji Long and Airmen Sean Condon and Eric Murphy aboard USS Enterprise Nov. 29
NORFOLK (Nov. 30, 2012) A U.S. Navy Sailor, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), gives a presentation on the operations of the ship's flight deck control center to a tour group during the ship's inactivation week tours Nov. 30. He is seated in front of the "ouija board" — a scaled down version of the flight deck. Enterprise was commissioned in 1961 and is scheduled to celebrate her inactivation, Dec. 1, after 51 years of service. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex R. Forster.
NORFOLK (Dec. 1, 2012) Veterans, family, and friends participate in the inactivation ceremony for the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Enterprise was commissioned Nov. 25, 1961 as the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The inactivation ceremony marks the end of her 51 years of service. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua E. Walters.
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