The aircraft carrier Enterprise in September on its 25th and final deployment. The ship made its homecoming Nov. 4 at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. (MC3 Scott Pittman / Navy)
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ABOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER ENTERPRISE — It may be 51 years old, but this flattop is fast. The supercarrier proved that once again the day before pulling into Norfolk, Va., from its final deployment.
Rumors once held "Big E" to be one of the fleet's fastest ships, capable of sailing nearly 50 miles an hour. After 25 deployments, the Enterprise — powered by a whopping eight reactors — still packs a punch.
"We did a speed run yesterday," said Capt. Bill Hamilton, the ship's commanding officer, after the ship pulled in Nov. 4. "We basically set the speed record with it. So it might be 51 years old, but this crew — this fantastic crew — kept her going better than new."
Officials originally thought Enterprise wouldn't make its final deployment. But after investing more than $600 million in an extended overhaul before its 24th cruise, Navy leaders realized Enterprise had enough grit — and reactor fuel — to head out one more time.
"We wanted to get every ounce of operation out of her," said Rear Adm. Ted Carter, the last commander of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group. "And it isn't just that she made it across that finish line. She made a deployment where she was the most operationally significant and relevant vessel on the water."
Jets launched from its deck in the Persian Gulf strafed Taliban targets in southern Afghanistan. These combat sorties were a closing chapter in Enterprise's storied history. The flattop patrolled in the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and its aircrews launched planes into conflicts from Vietnam and Desert Storm to Iraq. On the final deployment, which lasted eight months, its ship-drivers drove through the Strait of Hormuz 10 times — double the typical number — in a show of maritime dominance to Iran.
Enterprise has always been audacious, its existence proof that nuclear energy could safely power an aircraft carrier. In addition to being the first, it's also unique among the later Nimitz-class carriers, which would only carry two reactors. Many crew members said gear was often stored in unusual places and looked like it was crammed there.
Some said that Big E's eccentricities made the crew feel separate from the rest of the flattop fleet.
"Sailors here are cut from a different type of cloth," said Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Fuels) (AW/SW) Troy Nichols, who oversaw the hangar bay refueling teams on deployment.
On their way home, crew members recalled favorite memories from the cruise. Sailors assigned to Carrier Air Wing 1 said some of the seven port calls from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean had been a highlight. Logistics Specialist Seaman (SW/AW) Genae Valentine, who was on her second cruise aboard Enterprise, said her favorite was in Naples, Italy, because she visited Rome. Others mentioned their stop in Piraeus, Greece.
But for Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 3rd Class (AW/SW) Terell Marshall, the highlight was the flight deck announcing circuit, known as the 5MC. Marshall emceed from the tower atop Enterprise's island.
"It's the closest you can be to a superstar," he said Nov. 4 as the ship returned home. "Everybody puts their own spice on it. I do a lot of stuff that I make up in my head, and I say to people. I'll come on and say something like, ‘Yeah, buddy!'" he booms. "And then I say the safety procedures we have to take," he continued.
Keeping the message fresh helped flight deck crews stay sharp over the long months of deployment and played a small but significant part in the carrier safely launching 8,711 planes and landing 8,760.
A good deal of those belonged to Carter, the strike group commander. On the cruise, Carter — a tall, blond naval flight officer with the handle "Slapshot" — broke the all-time trap record for aviators. The Top Gun grad finished with 2,016 carrier arrested landings, shattering the previous record by 128 traps.
But Hamilton, the ship's skipper, had the last trap. The fighter pilot is also slated to oversee the inactivation process over the next few years. Hamilton expects to remain in command until the last nuclear fuel is removed and the ship retires from the Navy.
"It's been my honor and privilege to be the last CO of the Enterprise," Hamilton said. "It wouldn't have mattered to me if I was the first one, the last one or the middle one. Just being the commanding officer of this ship is such an honor.
"To be the last one is just icing on that cake."