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2012: A big year for the Big E

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, bottom, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser UDD Vicksburg, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS James E. Williams, USS Porter, USS McFaul, USS Cole and USS Nitze maneuver into formation during the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group's training unit exercise in this Jan. 2012 photo.

The retirement of the USS Enterprise closed a chapter for the U.S. Navy and capped a lucrative construction and maintenance contract for Newport News Shipbuilding.

The Big E, as it is known to sailors and shipbuilders, was the Navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Newport News-built ship was commissioned on Nov. 25, 1961, and it's a giant even by aircraft carrier standards, at 1,123-feet long and with eight nuclear reactors,

It took three years to build, and the Navy wouldn't build another ship like it, instead switching to a new class of carriers named after Adm. Chester Nimitz.

In November 2012, the Enterprise would pull into Naval Station Norfolk for the last time, completing its "Tiger Cruise" from Mayport, Fla.

The cruise and the subsequent week-long inactivation ceremony allowed some of the quarter million sailors who served aboard the carrier to see the ship a final time before it is decommissioned, stripped, de-fueled and ultimately scrapped.

Busy as a bee

The Enterprise marked the start of a lucrative monopoly for the shipyard, the only builder of the nation's nuclear carriers.

Newport News shipyard workers began their relationship during the 1950s. The yard sent engineers to help build a prototype reactor for the Enterprise in the desert of eastern Idaho.

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Its workers would build the massive carrier and perform decades worth of maintenance, including its midlife overhault.

Workers had a slogan dedicated to the ship and the abundant amount of work that came with keeping it in tip-top shape: "Busy as a bee aboard the Big E."

Inactivation work

The shipyard will also play a key role in preparing the Enterprise for the scrapyard.

After workers at Naval Station Norfolk pull equipment off the ship, it will be towed to Newport News.

Once at the yard, shipbuilders will spend four years, draining the carrier's hydraulic systems, emptying its tanks, removing hazardous materials, and nearly stripping it bare.

At that point the Big E, its reactors still on board, will be towed to a Navy yard in Bremerton, Wash.

The giant ship will have to go the long way, around South America, to reach the West Coast, because even after the Panama Canal is widened, the Big E will be too big to squeeze through.
 

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