Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) is the nation’s oldest continuously operating shipyard and one of the Navy’s largest industrial facilities. Located along the southern branch of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Va., it was founded Nov. 1, 1767, under the British flag by Andrew Sprowle, a Scottish-born entrepreneur.
NNSY, a full-service shipyard employing approximately 9,500 people, specializes in maintaining and modernizing surface ships and submarines. Across its five dry docks and four major piers, NNSY is capable of servicing each of the Navy’s submarine classes, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and large-deck amphibious ships.
A History of Firsts
NNSY can boast several Navy shipbuilding firsts. The first Navy battleship (USS Texas, launched in 1892), the first modern cruiser (USS Raleigh (C 8), launched in 1892), and the first aircraft carrier (USS Langley (CV 1), launched in 1912) were all completed at Norfolk. The first submarine serviced at NNSY (then named Norfolk Navy Yard) was the Navy’s first commissioned submarine, USS Holland (SS 1), in 1901.
Submarines serviced during subsequent years at the shipyard were of the Plunger (SS 2) class, used to train Navy personnel in submarine operations. USS Adder (SS 3), boasting considerable improvements over Holland, was 64 feet long, displaced 107 tons, and could dive to 100 feet.
Norfolk Navy Yard accomplished great feats with the surface fleet during the early 1900s, with its personnel preparing the Great White Fleet for steaming on its 46,000-mile diplomatic circumnavigation of the world from December 1907 to February 1909. Then the outbreak of World War I in Europe impacted the shipyard, changing its size, facilities, types of work, and workforce.
During WWII, Norfolk Navy Yard served the U.S. Fleet as one of the most important U.S. and Allied shipbuilding and repair bases. From early 1940 to the end of WWII, the yard accomplished repairs, upgrades, and conversions on 6,850 naval vessels. At the same time, 101 new ships and landing craft—including three 34,800-ton Essex-class aircraft carriers—were built for the fleet and millions of dollars in manufactured products were produced.
After WWII, the Norfolk Navy Yard officially became Norfolk Naval Shipyard. NNSY reduced its activities, downsized its workforce, and helped the Navy decommission most of its mammoth fleet. The yard would again surge to support the fleet, this time for two smaller wars while venturing into nuclear propulsion work, in the early 1960s.
As a first step, the yard operated as a non-nuclear submarine repair facility. The Bureau of Ships sent an advance directive to the shipyard instructing it to get organized for nuclear work and begin training personnel. The preparations began with conventional submarine work to familiarize shipyard workers with submarines. Incorporating nuclear work included converting a center for charging batteries and performing other submarine work, adapting a diesel locomotive for a mobile waterfront battery charging unit, and improving utility systems.
NNSY was accredited for nuclear work in the summer of 1964, and its first overhaul and refueling of a nuclear vessel began with the arrival of USS Skate (SSN 578) in April 1965. Three years of training for approximately 2,000 shipyard employees and acquisition of new facilities and equipment prepared NNSY for this inaugural task, which included alterations and modifications to increase the sub’s quieting, safety, and reliability. Following its overhaul, it would continue in service for another two decades before being decommissioned in September 1986.
By the late 1980s, NNSY’s submarine work focused on depot modernization periods for Los Angeles-class submarines. These were daunting overhauls that involved modernizing submarines rather than merely maintaining them.
NNSY effectively weathered reductions in force and the possible threat of closure during DoD’s decade of downsizing in the 1990s. To better use taxpayer dollars, the concept of regionalization was introduced throughout Hampton Roads, where similar Navy commands and equipment were combined to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
By the early 2000s, the future was bright for NNSY’s submarine workload. The first Trident submarine to be repaired at Norfolk, USS Florida (SSBN 728), arrived in May 2003 for conversion to a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN). By the end of its nearly three-year conversion, the sub boasted a wholesale change to her missile launching system, now designed to launch over a hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles in place of the 24 Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) carried by an SSBN. Florida also received improved equipment and modifications to optimize her for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and special operations forces (SOF) support missions. Sailors were also able to enjoy expanded living and training areas on the submarine. Conccurent with the Florida work, Norfolk performed the SSGN conversion on USS Georgia (SSBN 729).
NNSY also completed the last major overhaul for USS San Francisco (SSN 711). According to many Navy leaders, the shipyard’s work helped ensure the sub’s survival when it struck an undersea mountain 350 miles south of Guam early in 2005. Despite heavy damage to the bow, the sub was able to return to Guam under its own power.
Bruce Daughtrey, NNSY welder, uses only one hand to guide a grinder attached to the
zeroG arm while working on USS Newport News (SSN 750).
Preparing for the Future
In recent years, NNSY has embraced a back-to-basics strategy in executing submarine availabilities by collocating project teams and streamlining work processes. The first of several extensive engineered overhauls at the shipyard was done on USS Newport News (SSN 750), which arrived in late 2011. As this project began, the shipyard dedicated its first tool vending room and set up a submarine-adjacent fastener refit facility and ship extended worksite.
A zeroG arm was introduced for performing maintenance tasks on Newport News. The zeroG arm is a mechanical arm that allows workers to maneuver tools and payloads with greater range of motion and gives a sense of weightlessness to heavy objects such as grinders and welding equipment. It is now used by NNSY and two other naval shipyards, Puget Sound and Portsmouth.
NNSY recently completed its fifth overhaul on a Trident submarine, with USS West Virginia (SSBN 736) leaving the shipyard on October 24. In addition to refueling, other major work prepared West Virginia for its next 20 years of service. Some of these jobs include reverse osmosis modernization, steering and diving system maintenance, charging water storage tank ship alteration, and missile tube maintenance.
USS Maryland (SSBN 738) has been undergoing an overhaul at NNSY since its arrival in December 2012. Over the course of Maryland’s availability, NNSY personnel will refuel the boat’s nuclear reactor and overhaul ship systems, including replacement of distilling plants with a reverse osmosis unit, replacement of the ship’s service turbine generator rotor with a low-sensitivity rotor, installation of an upgraded 500-kw motor generator and local area network upgrades.
USS Albany (SSN 753) arrived at the shipyard Oct. 16 for its mid-life overhaul. Albany will spend approximately 29 months at NNSY for work that involves removing the shaft and the sonar dome for maintenance and modernizing its combat systems.
To bolster efficiency, the shipyard created a tool room in close proximity to the submarine. The tool vending room eliminates 1,300 man-miles of walking to a job site and generates a cost avoidance of $800,000 annually. Workers are provided with access to 500 items, including low-cost tools and expendable items such as pliers, measuring tapes, screwdrivers, highlighters, gloves, and drill bits. The project team has also incorporated additional management training to streamline the project.
NNSY is currently preparing for the eventual homeporting of Virginia-class submarines at Naval Station Norfolk, planning for its unique technical, logistical, and certification requirements to support pier-side and dry-docking availabilities.
NNSY is also making improvements to its facilities, which includes a renovation and 69-foot expansion of Dry Dock 8 to accommodate the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. The shipyard’s Pier 3 also completed renovations, with Piers 4 and 5 currently being renovated to create a “superpier.” These initiatives are all part of the shipyard’s overarching vision 2035 goal, which will improve NNSY’s infrastructure, reinvest and update the waterfront, and ensure a state-of-the-art shipyard.