NORFOLK, Va. — The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was retired from active service on Saturday, temporarily reducing the number of carriers in the U.S. fleet to 10 until 2015.
The USS Enterprise ended its notable 51-year career during a ceremony at its home port at Naval Station Norfolk, where thousands of former crew members, ship builders and their families lined a pier to bid farewell to one of the most decorated ships in the Navy.
It'll be a special memory. The tour yesterday was a highlight of the last 20 years of my life. I've missed the Enterprise since every day I walked off of it, said Kirk McDonnell, a former interior communications electrician aboard the ship from 1983 to 1987 who now lives in Highmore, S.D.
The Enterprise was the largest ship in the world at the time it was built, earning the nickname Big E. It didn't have to carry conventional fuel tanks for propulsion, allowing it to carry twice as much aircraft fuel and ordnance than conventional carriers at the time. Using nuclear reactors also allowed the ship to set speed records and stay out to sea during a deployment without ever having to refuel, one of the times ships are most vulnerable to attack.
Nuclear propulsion changed everything, said Adm. John Richardson, director of Naval Reactors.
Every other aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet is now nuclear powered, although they only have two nuclear reactors each compared to the Enterprise's eight. The Enterprise was the only carrier of its class ever built.
It was only designed to last 25 years, but underwent a series of upgrades to extend its life, making it the oldest active combat vessel in the fleet
The ship served in every major conflict since participating in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, helping earn its motto of We are Legend.
Its 25th and final deployment ended last month.
The Gerald R. Ford will be the first of a new class of aircraft carriers, but it will be several more years before it joins the fleet.