Carrier Enterprise makes a sentimental journey

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© October 19, 2012

ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE

A young sailor looked out through a smudged window while steering the world’s oldest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier toward a pastel orange sunrise on the Mediterranean Sea.

Down below, hundreds of sailors and Marines gathered on the flight deck as the Enterprise steamed past tiny seaside villas perched among the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. Some snapped photos of a school of dolphins; others posed for group shots in front of a nearby volcano.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Stallcup turned the helm, and the hulking vessel’s course shifted slowly to starboard as the Enterprise maneuvered into the Strait of Messina for the last time.

The significance wasn’t lost on the 21-year-old navigator. From this vantage point on the bridge, sailors like Stallcup have, for more than five decades, watched world history unfold on the open seas. The ship that joined the naval blockade during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was also the first carrier to launch combat flights over Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After nearly 51 years in service – more than twice its planned lifespan – “The Big E” is wrapping up its 25th and final deployment. Next month, it will return to Norfolk, where it will be inactivated before heading next year to the Newport News shipyard that will start dismantling it.

“The fact that we’re the last crew, and I’ll be one of the last guys at the helm, is an honor,” Stallcup said. “It’s a special ship.”

From the mess hall up to the air traffic control center, sailors aboard the Enterprise said they were feeling sentimental as the ship steamed toward its last-ever international port visit in Naples, Italy, on Monday. Yet the final deployment has been anything but a nostalgic swan song, said Capt. William Hamilton, the ship’s commanding officer.

During an eight-month deployment that sent the ship through the Gulf of Aden and the North Arabian Sea, the Enterprise launched 2,241 combat flights over Afghanistan, cared for a crew of Iranian mariners rescued from a burning fishing vessel, and participated in the largest-ever international mine-sweeping exercise near the Strait of Hormuz as Iran threatened to block the critical shipping lane.

“It was very much a working deployment,” Hamilton said. “That’s the way for a warrior to go out.”

Hamilton expects to make it back to Norfolk without problems, adding quickly, “It’s time. This was the last deployment, and it needs to be the last.”

Despite a fresh coat of paint in several of the ship’s cavernous passageways, the Cold War-era vessel is showing its age. Sailors used plastic forks and knives to eat T-bone steaks off paper plates Monday after a waterline break rendered the dishwashers useless for several hours.

“That’s the Enterprise,” an F/A-18 Hornet pilot said after plopping a juicy steak onto a flimsy plate.

A few weeks ago, one of the ship’s eight nuclear reactors was taken offline after a cooling turbine malfunctioned. Sailors in the machine shop had to build a special tool from scrap metal – a task they completed over the course of four days – so engineers could fix the problem.

Outside the cramped repair shop hangs a sign: “You break it, we make it.”

“The boat is so old, when something breaks, we either have to manufacture it here or have it special-ordered,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Mills, a senior machinist. “People walk in here with broken pieces and parts, and it’s our job to figure out what it was supposed to look like. We rarely have diagrams. On this ship, you just have to figure it out.”

Across the hall in the ship’s welding shop, Petty Officer 3rd Class Tim Albiniano fired a blowtorch to fuse an old waterproof door latch to a piece of scrap metal – part of his work to build a time capsule made from pieces of the ship. The box will have handles made of landing cables and windows using glass from a couple of portholes. The capsule will hold letters from sailors and other keepsakes and will be presented to the secretary of the Navy during the ship’s inactivation ceremony in December.

Albiniano volunteered to build the capsule in his free time, which is limited: Enterprise welders work 13-hour days and can be called in anytime to make a repair.

“We don’t really stop working until the phone stops ringing,” Albiniano said.

The ship has been retrofitted, retooled and renovated numerous times over the years, resulting in some cumbersome working conditions.

The elevators that move ordnance stored below decks pass through a general mess deck, where the crew eats. When bombs need to be moved in a hurry, sailors have to clear out anyone who might be dining there, then flip the tables out of the way.

There’s truth in the ship’s motto – “There’s tough, then there’s Enterprise tough” – said Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler, a spokeswoman for the ship.

“Enterprise sailors walk around with a little bit of a puff in our chest because everything is harder,” she said.

Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Young has served the past decade on the Enterprise, including on five deployments. He wouldn’t have traded his time here to work on a more modern carrier, he said.

“Some people joked the only way to get me off the ship was to decommission it,” he said.

Young, who oversees the ship’s air department, recalls instances when a blown brake line on an aircraft catapult was patched up just seconds before jets were scheduled to take off.

“On the flight deck, they have no idea,” Young said. “They’re going to the catapult to launch the jet as if nothing’s going on. But below deck, we’re sweating and struggling.”

For all its troubles, Young said, he’s going to miss the Enterprise. After the reactors are removed and most equipment is offloaded in Newport News, the ship will be hauled to the West Coast and cut into scrap metal.

“When I retire, there’s no going back to where I worked to take a tour,” Young said. “It’s gone. It’s not going to be a museum. You either made the memories while you were here, or it’s gone.”

Australian public TV journalist David Brill remembers standing on vulture’s row in 1971 and watching planes launch off the Enterprise, laden with bombs bound for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Brill returned to the Enterprise this week and shot video of flight operations from the same spot for one final story on the old warship.

“The Enterprise had an incredible effect on me,” Brill said, recalling a shinier ship from his days covering the Vietnam War. “I’ve always kept an eye on it since then. This ship is 50 years old, and it hasn’t really had any major problems. It has been an incredible success story for peace.”

Rear Adm. Ted Carter, commander of the Enterprise carrier strike group, said he takes a lot of pride in guiding the ship through its final mission.

“I think the biggest story is that the United States built this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be a vessel – a warship – that would sail around the world wherever it was needed, and she is still relevant today,” Carter said. “What she does today is still just as important as her first deployment during the Cuban missile crisis. It’s remarkable.”

Carter, a career aviator who flew F-14 Tomcats off the Enterprise in the 1980s, suited up Monday to fly in the backseat of the last jet to ever make a nighttime landing on the Enterprise. The Super Hornet touched down under pitch black skies that were spitting rain.

Before that flight, the admiral downplayed the significance of marking sentimental moments on a cruise that’s filled with “lasts.”

“You do become sentimental about the equipment that has served our nation so well,” Carter said. “But you have to remember that as we move from one chapter to the next, the most important thing is the people that operated it.”

Two days after pulling through the Suez Canal last week, the ship encountered rain for the first time since it left Norfolk in March. Members of the crew rushed from work stations and mess halls to get a glimpse or feel the moisture.

A handful of sailors splashed through puddles on the flight deck as months of caked-on brown desert dirt streamed off the ship. Lightning flickered on the horizon while a group of sailors from the crash and salvage crew tossed a waterlogged football across the deck – a light moment after a tough deployment.

“We don’t always get to have a good time out here,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Cole Steyer. “It finally feels like this cruise is coming to an end.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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