In Norfolk, crew of Minnesota poised to bring submarine to life
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NAVAL STATION NORFOLK -- Growing up in Newport News, David Alvarez was into technology, and that led him to a career in the Navy's submarine service as a sonar technician.
It wasn't just the technology. After all, when you join the Navy, you see the world.
So it was somewhat surprising when the 2000 Menchville High School graduate found himself back in Hampton Roads playing a part in Navy history.
Alvarez is among the 137 sailors in the first crew of the fast-attack submarine Minnesota, which the Navy will commission Saturday at Naval Station Norfolk.
Newport News Shipbuilding builds Virginia-class subs in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn., with the two yards taking turns on final assembly and delivery. Newport News delivered the Minnesota.
This is the third submarine for the 31-year-old Alvarez, a petty officer first class. But it will be his first tour aboard a Virginia class sub, which is smaller and designed to operate closer to shore.
His other two submarines were the USS Nebraska and USS Kentucky, the larger, Ohio-class "boomer" subs. Instead of being attack-oriented, boomers roam the seas and avoid other ships, providing the U.S. with a hidden nuclear deterrent.
But regardless of the ship, Alvarez said the submarine service is special. Already a 13-year Navy veteran, he has no plans to leave the Navy.
"It's exciting," he said. "It's not something that's done every day."
The only downside: He can't brag to his friends in Newport News. They don't call it "the silence service" for nothing.
"It's very difficult," he said. "You disappear for a while, no Facebook posts or emails. You can't bring everybody to your job. You just go somewhere, do some things and come back."
Alvarez is typical of the Minnesota's crew. For most, this is their first tour aboard a Virginia-class sub. Molding a 137-member crew into a cohesive unit was the job of Capt. John Fancher and his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. John Witte, plus Master Chief Randy Reid, the Chief Of The Boat and senior enlisted sailor on board.
The crew has a special relationship with the Minnesota, having seen it come together piece by piece. Fancher recalls joining a nucleus of about 50 crew members while the sub was under construction in Newport News.
"It was incredible watching the technology come together," said Fancher, whose wife is a Minnesota native. "You can imagine the kind of complexity of taking 137 people, 125 of them having no experience driving this kind of submarine, and going to sea for sea trials."
But the crew has been going to sea since May, Fancher said. It will eventually move to its home port at Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton. By the fall of 2014, the crew will begin preparing for its first deployment.
Master Chief Reid said the crew spread out across the country to get hands-on experience in Virginia class submarines. The Navy only has 9; Minnesota will be the tenth.
"It's been a steep learning curve," Reid said. "We had people go as far as Hawaii to get under way on Virginia class subs."
On Friday, the crew rehearsed the commissioning ceremony. Guests will include Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations; Sen. Mark R. Warner and Minnesota's two senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar.
In a statement, Mabus praised "the work of the more than a thousand shipyard craftsmen and engineers" who built the boat. For Fancher, the commissioning ceremony marks the culmination of a dream.
"I've been in the Navy for 22 years," he said. "I've never been part of this kind of process before."