Shipyard Showing Strength in a New Era

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Hampton Union, Friday, September 3, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
USS Virginia (SSN-774), the nation's newest and most advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine and the lead ship of its class.
[Courtesy photo]

The motto of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is "from sails to atoms" — referring, of course, to the yard's long history that began with masted schooners and continues today with nuclear submarines.

Added to that tradition this week is a new chapter, as the state-of-the-art technological wonder that is the U.S. Navy's newest class of submarines, the Virginia class, joins to the long and distinguished roster of ships that have come to the yard for work.

It was a proud day for the shipyard, and indeed for the entire Seacoast, on Wednesday as the USS Virginia made its way from the open Atlantic Ocean and up the Piscataqua River to the shipyard drydock number three for 14 months of work.

The Virginia is the first in the Virginia class ever built. Like the others that came after her, including our own USS New Hampshire that was commissioned in 2008, the sub is much more technologically advanced than its older cousin, the Los Angeles class, which up until now has been the bread and butter of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

While many of the core features of the two classes are the same, workers have had to gear up to work on the fascinating new technology on the Virginia class. These include a photonics mast instead of a periscope, which can scan the waters in five seconds and download information into a computer. An advanced electromagnetic silencing system reduces the sub's vulnerability to magnetic mines while it is in shallow waters. Its sonar system enables it to map the ocean floor, ferret out enemy submarines and detect enemy mine fields.

It has taken years of worker training to get ready for the arrival of the Virginia this week. As part of that preparation, the yard designed and built a number of real-sized models of the sub's systems and also built a Virginia class hull mock-up to train fabricators on the installation and removal of the next generation of paint and preservation systems.

"We're ready for the challenge," said Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, the largest union at the yard. "Thousands of men and women have been working together to get it right for this day. It's exciting for us to be part of the transitional history of the shipyard."

All of this takes time and not an insignificant monetary commitment to accomplish. In all, $43.5 million has been spent or allocated during the past four years, gearing up for the Virginia class. Much of that work was done by outside contractors and subcontractors, men and women in the greater Seacoast who have been fortunate enough to work in these difficult times at a yard that is bursting with activity and is the model of a robust economy.

It is appropriate, too, that the city of Portsmouth has been chosen as the host community for the crew of the USS Virginia during her stay here. We have no doubt that, in the capable hands of the host committee headed by City Councilor Bob Lister, the crew and their families will be well taken care of.

Wednesday truly was an important day for the Seacoast. It was only a scant five years ago when we all wondered if the shipyard would remain open. Today, it is a vibrant, healthy, growing place, a true gem for us all.

Welcome, USS Virginia.

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