Why America's First 'Super' Aircraft Carrier Was a Game Changer

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: The USS Enterprise proved the viability of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and so much more.

The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ever built carries one of the most famous names in flattop history: Enterprise. Designed as the nucleus of a nuclear-powered task force that could travel indefinitely without fuel replenishment, the USS Enterprise set the standard for all U.S. aircraft carriers to the present day.

In August 1950 the chief of naval operations, Adm. Forrest Sherman, requested a feasibility study for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. A shore-based nuclear reactor was built as a test, and based on the success of the so-called A1W reactor authorization, and funds for a nuclear carrier was approved in 1958.

Enterprise was commissioned in November 1961. It was 1,123 feet long, the longest aircraft carrier ever built, and displaced 93,284 tons fully loaded. Its eight A2W reactors, a development of the A1W, could together generate an amazing 280,000 shaft horsepower, driving Enterprise’s four propellers to a speed of more than thirty-five knots. The ship was manned by a crew of 5,500, including the air wing, and could carry eighty-five aircraft.

Enterprise followed the same design as its conventionally powered predecessors Kitty Hawk and Constellation. It had four catapults, two on the bow and two on the port waist, and four aircraft elevators. Its uniquely shaped superstructure was nicknamed “the beehive” and housed electronic countermeasures gear and SCANFAR, the world’s first shipboard phased-array radar consisting of the the SPS-32 and SPS-33 search radars.

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