USS Enterprise: The aircraft carrier that changed everything turns 50
NEWPORT NEWS — Fifty years ago today the largest dry dock in the world filled with water from the James River, setting afloat the world's largest ship and first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

At 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, 1960, Mrs. William B. Franke, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the USS Enterprise as the rushing seawater freed it from its last keel block.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh A. Burke told some 12,000 guests at the christening ceremony that the 1,101-foot Big E was "the largest ship ever built of any kind by any nation," containing the most powerful nuclear power plant ever constructed anywhere in the world.

Yard president William E. Blewett Jr. paid tribute to the thousands of workers who "labored with imagination, skill and pride to build a vessel worthy of its name."

Today, the Enterprise sits across the harbor at Naval Station Norfolk, preparing for two final, six-month deployments before it's decommissioned in 2012.

Neither the Navy nor the ship's crew has planned an event to celebrate the milestone, preferring to wait until Nov. 25, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Enterprise becoming an official member of the fleet.

Nonetheless, when the one-of-a-kind supercarrier was launched that Saturday five decades ago, it cemented Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as the premier shipyard in the United States and positioned it as an indispensable asset even today.

"The Enterprise was seen not simply as the first of a new class of carriers, but a step in the transformation of the entire fleet," said James C. Bradford, a Navy historian and professor at Texas A&M University.

To build the ship, the yard had to alter its facilities and dry dock to be able to accommodate the largest vessel ever constructed. Further, it had to train and retain a cadre of highly experienced and skilled workers to undertake the most complex shipbuilding project ever attempted.

"The Enterprise got (Newport News) the facility and the trained workforce. There was simply no other yard capable of doing this kind of work," Bradford said. "Building the Enterprise really solidified Newport News Shipbuilding."

Since the launch of the Enterprise, all 12 of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers have been built in Newport News, bringing billions of dollars of contracts and decades worth of work for tens of thousands in Hampton Roads.

It remains the only yard capable of building and refueling the nation's fleet of aircraft carriers, a monopoly that's provided the yard with a steady and lucrative stream of business, a line of work that will likely continue for decades to come.

"The success of the USS Enterprise led to the development of the … Nimitz class carriers, 10 of which are presently in service, providing an all-nuclear carrier force for the U.S. Navy," said Tom Dougan, a spokesman for the Navy's nuclear reactors division.

After completing the 10th and final ship of the Nimitz class, the George H.W. Bush, in 2009, Newport News began building the first ship in a new class of carriers, the Gerald R. Ford.

With a scheduled 2015 commissioning, the Ford would likely be back in Newport News around 2040 for its mid-life overhaul.

It's all work for which the Big E paved the way.

The yard had built 17 carriers before the Enterprise, including ships in the Forrestal class and the Kitty Hawk class, but it wasn't the only player in the business. The New York Naval Shipyard and New York Shipbuilding Co. each were building flattops at the time.

But the Enterprise was a different animal. Outfitted with eight nuclear reactors that would give it virtually unlimited range and a horsepower of 200,000, it was a marvel of modern engineering.

The Navy needed the nation's best and brightest to design the experimental ship, which required 915 designers and more than 16,000 construction drawings — each done by hand with mechanical pencils and based on calculations done with sliderules.