Aging but unbowed, Enterprise poised to deploy
By Hugh Lessig | (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press | Published: March 8, 2012
NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. -- The problem of the moment aboard the USS Enterprise was not the crossfire in Syria or rumblings in Iran. It concerned a coupling for an air conditioner unit.
Ordering a replacement was out of the question. The government doesn't exactly have an online parts store for this one-of-a-kind, 50-year-old aircraft carrier. A new coupling had to be manufactured from scratch.
Enter Petty Officer Second Class Michael Petronio, the leading petty officer in the machine shop of the Enterprise.
"We manufacture any kind of custom part you can't find," he said. "They just don't make them. So we piece it together, measure it and create a duplicate, so to speak."
As the Enterprise prepares to leave Sunday for its final deployment to a dangerous part of the world, the skill of Petronio and his sailors will be as vital to the mission as that of fighter pilots, communications officers and senior command staff.
Capt. William Hamilton, the Enterprise commander, said his sailors take a special pride in keeping the aging ship up and running. Much of the time, they end up doing it the way Petronio described: Making something to fit.
"Life is hard on the Enterprise," Hamilton said, chatting with reporters on the windy flight deck. "But when they leave here, they leave here knowing if they can do this, they can do anything."
It isn't just couplings for air conditioning units. It could be a stuck valve or a fouled electrical component. For a ship that has been plying the seas since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, components can fail without warning. It's what the skipper called the "unknown unknowns."
"Something that was working a month ago and you turn it on – you have no idea that something is going to be wrong," he said.
Gazing across the water, he set eyes on the USS George H.W. Bush, the newest carrier in the U.S. fleet.
"It's the same for all carriers, but as you can imagine, the Bush over the there – shiny, new Bush – the unknown unknowns are far less than they are here," he said.
Preparations for the seven-month deployment were in full swing Thursday as the Navy invited reporters aboard for a look around the ship. Sailors scurried back and forth in the hangar bay, moving pallets that contained everything from eggs to office chairs. Another group of pallets held 1,000 burlap bags, packed tightly in – what else? – more burlap.
Up on the flight deck, Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Dennis said this carrier presents a different challenge for him as the flight deck petty officer. The shape of the deck is different relative to the Nimitz-class carriers. Still, he's more than happy to be a part of the final deployment..
"It's big history," he said. "Being part of this last deployment, it'll be something I can tell my children and grandchildren."
Dennis has another reason to feel good about this ship. He hails from Cairo, Ga., the hometown of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek." Yes, this petty officer is also a fan of that Enterprise.
"Being from Cairo, that's like real huge, too," he said, smiling.
For all the talk about repairs and aging parts, the officers and crew said they recognize what might await them in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. The Enterprise will be along the first line of response for humanitarian crises, pirate hostage scenarios and the ever-present possibility of a major international flare-up involving Syria or Iran.
Rear Adm. Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr. commands Carrier Strike Group 12. He will head to sea with the Enterprise as his flagship and backed by the might of three Norfolk-based guided-missile destroyers -- the USS Porter, USS Nitze and USS James E. Williams – along with the guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg, departing Naval Station Mayport on Friday.
Part of the group's job will be "presence missions," Carter said.
"It's a deterrence to those who are potential enemies," he said, "but also an assurance to those who are coalition and friends."
Petty Officer Second Class Justin Woodard, an aircraft handler, will be directing fighter jets to their respective positions on the flight deck.
"My thoughts are just to keep my mind on God while we go through this," he said. "We're going into the land of the unknown. We don't know what's going to happen over there."
Distributed by MCT Information Service