Lifecycle of an Aircraft Carrier

Carrier Design & Construction

construction_bleedleftSince 1960, the beginning of the nuclear carrier era, Newport News Shipbuilding has been the sole designer and builder of aircraft carriers for the United States Navy. Starting with USS Enterprise (CVN 65), we have created these marvels of naval engineering from initial design to sea trials. However, designing and building aircraft carriers is no small task.

Design & engineering

Working closely with the Navy, we design and engineer aircraft carriers to their specifications and needs, adding new technologies and innovations with each new ship we build, refining the process each step of the way. The design and engineering of these ships are unparalleled in the world shipbuilding, with our carriers lasting 50 years in often extreme conditions.

Nuclear propulsion

Nuclear propulsion gives these ships the ability to go for years without refueling, adding unique strategic advantages to the Navy. In partnership with the Navy’s nuclear program, we continually improve the quality and safety of the nuclear reactors that power the ships while increasing the energy efficiency.

Construction of a small city

Building a carrier is a major construction undertaking. Their size is enormous: if stood up, a Nimitz-class carrier is almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Aircraft carriers must support more than 5,000 sailors, aircraft and enough supplies to maintain both for months. The construction process requires large amounts of material ordered years in advance and the coordination of thousands of skilled craftsmen.

In the past, most ships were built from the bottom up in a single location. Today, shipbuilding is primarily ‘modular,’ which means that large parts of the ship are completed before being added to the ship using a “superlift.” This approach requires a large crane and dry dock; we have the largest dry dock and gantry crane in the United States. Working around the clock, over 2,500 men and women work these ships for a period of about five years to bring them from the first cut of steel to delivery.

At the 25-year half-life of a carrier, we also perform what is called Refueling Complex Overhaul (RCOH), which includes refueling of the ship’s nuclear reactors, as well as significant repair, upgrades and modernization work.

Refueling & Complex Overhaul (RCOH)


USS Theodore Roosevelt at Newport News Shipbuilding for RCOH.

Newport News Shipbuilding is the only shipyard to perform refueling and complex overhaul work on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. This massive undertaking was described in a 2002 Rand Study as one of the most challenging engineering and industrial tasks undertaken anywhere by an organization.

The nearly four-year project is performed only once during a carrier’s 50-year life and includes refueling of the ship’s two nuclear reactors, as well as significant repair, upgrade and modernization work.

Fleet Services

two_thirds-fleetservicesOur portfolio of in-service carriers fleet service offerings includes maintenance and modernization work on aircraft carriers at our facilities in Newport News, North Island, San Diego, at Naval Bases on the East and the West Coasts, at sea and at Yokosuka, Japan. We also provide technical and life cycle logistics services wherever the need is around the world.



two_thirds-inactivationSince 2007, Newport News Shipbuilding has been planning for the inactivation of USS Enterprise (CVN 65), which began in 2013. The Newport News-built Enterprise is the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the only ship of its class. Enterprise joined the Navy’s fleet in 1961, and our Newport News shipbuilders have been responsible for accomplishing the majority of scheduled and emergent maintenance work since 2004.