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The Associated Press August 28, 2003

Carrier's departure for training, deployment delayed a day

By Sonja Barisic

Minor engineering problems kept the USS Enterprise at the pier Thursday, delaying its departure for training and the first deployment of a Navy aircraft carrier since major military operations in Iraq officially ended on May 1.

Repairs were expected to be finished soon, and the earliest the ship could now leave would be sometime Friday, said Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis, spokesman for the Second Fleet.

Sailors were not being allowed to leave the ship Thursday night, Duplessis said. "We feel like we're really close to getting wrapped up," he said.

Earlier, Capt. Eric C. Neidlinger, the ship's commanding officer, said repairs being made included those to a small leak in a drain in an auxiliary steam system and a voltage regulator on a turbine generator.

Those problems would not affect the ship if it already were at sea because it has many redundant systems, Neidlinger said. But the Navy holds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to high standards and thus repairs must be made before the ship can leave, he said.

"We want no distractions when we get out there," he said.

The ship's age was not a factor in the problems, Neidlinger said. The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Enterprise was commissioned on Nov. 25, 1961, and made its maiden voyage the following January.

"It's not too old," Neidlinger said. "The ship is in great shape."

Duplessis said it is not uncommon for ships to get under way a little late to make sure all systems are ready.

Mechanical problems aboard the Enterprise already delayed training by several weeks, and crew members selected by the Navy to speak with reporters on the pier acknowledged some frustration because of the delays.

"It was day by day, now it's hour by hour," said Airman Andre Alexander, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y. who was eager to make his first deployment.

The last deployment of an Atlantic Fleet carrier was delayed as well. In January, a minor mechanical problem forced the Norfolk-based USS Theodore Roosevelt to depart five hours late for training exercises that culminated in deployment.

"It's unfortunate the last two carrier deployments for the Atlantic Fleet ... have had this sort of hiccup," said Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit military intelligence and space research organization in Alexandria.

But he said sometimes ships break down and there was no need for the Enterprise to rush out until officials know everything is in good shape.

While the ship is nearly 42 years old, it just emerged from a yearlong overhaul and maintenance period and is well taken care of as the flagship of the East Coast, Garrett said.

The Enterprise's voyage will mark several important changes in how the Navy does business.

The Enterprise is to be the first carrier not to train at Vieques since the Navy stopped using the Puerto Rican island earlier this year after protests from residents.

The Enterprise will sail with three other U.S. warships and a destroyer from Argentina for a month of training exercises off the East Coast. The ships then will head directly to the Mediterranean Sea and possibly the Persian Gulf.

Thursday's delay should not hurt the training, Neidlinger said.

The carrier strike group is about a third the size of traditional, Cold War-era battle groups and has about 6,500 sailors and Marines instead of the usual about 13,000. About 5,000 of those sailors and Marines are aboard the Enterprise.

The deployment is expected to last a little longer than the standard six months as the Navy tries to get its carriers back onto a regular deployment cycle post-war, Duplessis said. The Navy wants to keep deployments close to six months but must be flexible to meet operation needs, he said.

The carrier strike group is made up of the Norfolk-based Enterprise; Air Wing 1, from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach; the guided missile cruisers USS Philippine Sea and USS Gettysburg, based in Mayport, Fla.; and the combat logistics ship USS Detroit, from Earle, N.J.

The ARA Sarandi, from Argentina, will join the Enterprise for the training and part of the deployment to build interaction between the U.S. and Argentine navies, the Navy said.

Copyright 2003, The Associated Press