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After long delay, sailors excited to head out to sea aboard aircraft carrier Eisenhower

An F-18 Hornet passes over the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on Sept. 2, 2015.

J. E. VEAL/U.S. NAVY

By MIKE HIXENBAUGH | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 5, 2015

NORFOLK (Tribune News Service) — Two years ago, the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, having returned from a rare back-to-back deployment to the Persian Gulf, pulled into Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth for a maintenance overhaul.

Turns out, the ship was past due for a tuneup.

After crews got the nearly 40-year-old carrier out of the water and into dry dock, workers "opened her up" and found the ship needed much more maintenance than expected. Soon, plans for 14 months in the shipyard grew to 17, then stretched to 23 – and the Eisenhower's next deployment was bumped from this fall to sometime next year.

The carrier required 50 percent more maintenance than planned, including extra work on systems such as the shafts, rudders and distilling units. Shipyard workers, contractors and sailors logged "more than 1.2 million man-days of work" during the availability.

"There continued to be maintenance that we had to accomplish," said Capt. Stephen Koehler, the Eisenhower's commanding officer, explaining the delays. "It's a complicated machine, and as you get into it, things can cascade."

Cascade they did: The unprecedented extension has had a ripple effect throughout the fleet and for thousands of Norfolk-based sailors.

The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman will deploy in the Eisenhower's place this fall, requiring the Truman to undergo an abbreviated maintenance period and an accelerated predeployment workup schedule. The streamlined Truman repairs delayed the carrier George H.W. Bush's entry into the shipyard, which means the Bush will have less time than normal to get ready for its next deployment – as will the Eisenhower as it prepares to ship out next summer.

Finally, after the longest and most comprehensive carrier overhaul ever completed at one of the Navy's public shipyards, the Eisenhower, the service's second-oldest active aircraft carrier, returned to sea last week, then docked a few days later to a pier at Norfolk Naval Station.

Sailors seemed thrilled with the change in scenery. The ship buzzed with excitement Thursday as the crew prepared to head back out, this time to test the flight deck crew's ability to launch and recover aircraft – the first step in a monthslong process to prepare for deployment.

Sailors have been walking with "an extra hop in their step," Koehler said. "When most people join the Navy, they're not thinking they'll be in a shipyard. They joined the Navy to launch airplanes and all of that. And now they get to do that."

Generally, shipyard work is considered one of the more challenging periods in a sailor's career, often entailing long hours and extra overnight duty assignments; that's compounded when yard time is repeatedly extended.

"It's tedious," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Vaiza, a flight deck supervisor who spent months overseeing the resurfacing of the flight deck instead of helping launch fighter jets. "It's different from what we're used to on deployment."

After almost two years in the yard, about two-thirds of the crew had never known anything else.

Many of the first-timers stood on the flight deck last week, marveling as the massive ship steamed along the Elizabeth River, past downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth. The crew's media department produced a time-lapse video, set to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" to celebrate the triumphant moment.

"That was a good feeling," Vaiza said.

Down in the ship's propulsion rooms, where nuclear-trained teams operate and maintain the ship's power plant, sailors didn't get to feel the wind in their hair. But the moment was no less exciting, Petty Officer 3rd Class Zach Cheely said.

"We've got our ventilation," said Cheely, a 21-year-old Newport News native, referring to the air conditioning his crew helps power. "We provide our own wind."

The yard time probably was hardest on the sailors down in the reactors, Cheely said. They worked longer days than most and, during a few weekslong stretches, had overnight duty every other day. An additional challenge: All nuclear work on the ship was paused for a stretch while the shipyard investigated whether civilian workers had improperly handled potentially contaminated equipment.

"Pulling out was one of the best feelings," Cheely said. "It was amazing seeing all that hard work and all that equipment come online."

There's a lot more work ahead. The Eisenhower and its air wing have a short window to prepare for next year's deployment. As a result, the ship will be spending a lot of time at sea the next several months, said Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, its public affairs officer.

Although it will mean more time away from family, most crew members are thrilled to see the reward for their hard work, she said. A highlight will come next month, when the Navy plans to test F-35 fighter jet flight operations off the ship.

It was a long time coming, but finally, Rebarich said, "The Ike is back."

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(c)2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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