The aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 65) departs on its final deployment from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on March 11. Enterprise is deploying to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. (MC2 Rafael Martie / Navy)
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ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE — Accompanied by three blasts of the ship's horn, the oldest active warship in the Navy shoved off from Norfolk Naval Base's Pier 12 at 11:50 a.m. on a bright, mild Sunday. As big ships will, the carrier Enterprise moved almost imperceptibly at first, gradually gaining momentum as she moved silently away from the pier and backward out of her berth.
A surprisingly small crowd of well-wishers, kept off the pier by security, watched with little fanfare as the ship's crew lined the flight deck and looked back. A group of U.S. Marines, on board as part of a Marine strike fighter squadron, stood front and center at the foremost end of the deck. It was a minor blast from the past and harkened back to the days of the Enterprise's youth when Marines formed a portion of every major Navy ship's company.
A group of officers on board the amphibious ship Mesa Verde, berthed across from the carrier, rushed to have their picture taken one last time with the distinctive island structure of the Enterprise in the background. On the opposite side of the berth, a small group of sailors gathered on the flight deck of the Navy's newest carrier, the George H. W. Bush, to watch the historic departure.
Two helicopters from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 11 lifted off from the Big E's flight deck, carrying Navy photographers to document the 50-year-old ship's departure on her 22nd and final deployment. Although it was a Sunday, virtually no spectator craft were present as the Enterprise shifted into forward gear and headed down the familiar Norfolk ship channel to the sea. Only a Coast Guard security patrol escorted the carrier as she passed a handful of spectators on nearby Fort Monroe.
Off Virginia Beach, the Enterprise — one of the most recognizable ships ever built — passed a long line of nondescript merchant ships waiting to enter the Hampton Roads port. Flight operations began as a dozen F/A-18 jets from the four strike fighter squadrons of Carrier Air Wing 1 came aboard to recertify their flight deck qualifications. The thunder of jet aircraft continued into the night as the Enterprise steamed under a million stars and a phosphorescent wake trailed behind.
More than 5,000 sailors on board the ship quickly adopted a seagoing routine — stowing gear, checking equipment and working out wherever they could. A workmanlike atmosphere prevailed throughout the 1,123-foot-long ship.
Shortly after leaving Norfolk, ocean storms already were causing navigators to adjust the planned course for the Enterprise and her escorts to cross the Atlantic. The ships would maneuver to avoid the heavy seas as best they could.
Behind, the strike group was leaving a country where the media featured daily stories about a virtual civil war in Syria, a deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan and increasing signs of some sort of military action against Iran's nuclear program.
Ahead, the Enterprise and her group faced at least seven and a half months of steaming on the other side of the world, in a region where those stories could become far more real at any given moment.