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Storied aircraft carrier heads out on final deployment

Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press

The last few sailors boarded the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise as it prepared for its last deployment Sunday in Norfolk, Va.

NORFOLK, Va. - The USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, set out to sea Sunday on its final voyage before its scheduled decommissioning after 50 years of duty.

Officials say the carrier, which was featured in the film “Top Gun,’’ left Norfolk about noon.

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The ship with more than 4,000 crew members has been involved in several wars and played a prominent role in the Cuban missile crisis. It also served as a spotter ship for John Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth in 1962.

The Enterprise is heading to the Middle East on its seven-month deployment, where it will be on standby in case of conflict with Iran or piracy threats off Somalia, among other things. The ship has experience with both situations, participating in a retaliatory strike against Iran for mining the Persian Gulf in 1988 and responding last year to the hijacking of a sailing vessel by Somali pirates, during which all four Americans on board were shot and killed.

The deployment will be the ship’s 22d. After its return to Virginia in the fall, tens of thousands are expected to be on hand for a deactivation ceremony on Dec. 1 that President Obama has been invited to attend.

The Enterprise is the longest aircraft carrier in the US fleet. It is also the oldest, a distinction that brings pride as well as plenty of headaches for the ship’s crew.

The ship is effectively a small city that frequently needs repairs because of its age. It was originally designed to last 25 years, but a major overhaul in 1979 and other improvements have extended its life.

But even the best-maintained ship faces challenges as it ages, said Captain William Hamilton, the ship’s commanding officer.

Machinists in charge of fixing unexpected problems say the things that can break down range from critical air conditioner units to elevators that lift fighter jets from the hangar bay to the flight deck. Moreover, the Enterprise has eight nuclear reactors to maintain - six more than any other US carrier.

The ship often has to make its own parts when something breaks. Spare parts for much of the ship simply do not exist.

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