NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The USS Enterprise begins the final leg home from it's final deployment after 51 years of service.
Neither Don Thiry nor Joe Owens will be in Florida on Friday morning to see the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise begin the final leg of a journey that has lasted 51 years.
But their hearts won't be far away.
Both men are emblematic of how the nation's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has reached across the years to touch people from different backgrounds.
Thiry, who lives in Michigan, served on the ship in the late 1960s. Owens, a longtime employee at Newport News Shipbuilding, helped construct Enterprise in the early 1960s.
Both will be thinking of Big E as it leaves Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, a departure scheduled for mid-morning. The Enterprise is due back Sunday at Naval Station Norfolk for what is sure to be an emotional day. The ship has been at sea nearly eight months, supporting combat operations in Afghanistan, and this will be its final homecoming.
Enterprise was Thiry's only duty station during his 3-1/2 year Navy career, and it made an impression. Today, he chairs the 1,500-member USS Enterprise Association.
"It's kind of like your college," he said in a telephone interview. "You spend four years at your alma mater – it can do no wrong."
The Enterprise has been such a constant that Thiry has a hard time imagining life without it.
"I'm sixty-four years old, and the ship has always been there for me," he said. "It's been in the news. It's been in the yards."
Owens began his career at the shipyard on July 7, 1961, starting in the electrical department. The Enterprise was already well under construction by then, and he worked on the ship until it left the yard in 1962. Coming to the shipyard as a young man from Abingdon, Va., he had no idea he was helping to construct a piece of history.
"I was young, and coming out of the country," he said. "It was the first ship I had ever seen."
Since then, Owens has worked on six U.S. aircraft carriers at various times, and there is no doubt which one is his favorite.
"We're talking about it," he said.
In an ideal world, Owens has one more wish. After the ship's inactivation ceremony on Dec. 1, he'd like to ride Big E for the final mile as it leaves Norfolk and arrives back in Newport News -- to the shipyard that has been his second home.
"It's the first one I worked on, and this place has been my life," he said.
Owens has experienced the thrill of standing on the Enterprise's flight deck as fighter jets take off and land, and riding that final mile would be a fitting conclusion to his carrier experience.
"Once that happens," he said, "they can decommission my career."