You can make out their distinctive profiles -- massive, gray, flat-topped hulls, each with an "island" bearing big-block numbers -- from miles away, such familiar sights as to be nearly taken for granted.
Yet they're the Navy's crown jewels, five of them homeported in Hampton Roads.
Since the 1920s, more than 60 U.S. aircraft carriers have been built, 30 of them at Newport News Shipbuilding. Among the more famous -- maybe the most famous -- was the USS Enterprise, The Big "E," the world's first nuclear-powered carrier, launched in September 1960.
Today, it's back where it was built, in the home stretch of defueling its reactors -- the first phase in the process that will lead to its eventual dismantlement.
Even in the face of its own impending demise, as it were, the ship may be breathing life back in the direction of its creator, positioning the shipyard for a business opportunity as big as the Enterprise itself: helping to break down and dispose of carriers and their reactors -- not just building, defueling and refueling them.
The shipyard won a $745 million Navy contract for the inactivation of the Enterprise three years ago and is expected to complete the defueling work around next spring. Because it's the first nuclear-powered carrier to be "inactivated" -- prepared for its pending disposal -- it presents a new set of challenges to its builder and the Navy.
"We're learning a lot," said Chris Miner, vice president of in-service carrier programs at Huntington Ingalls Industries' Newport News Shipbuilding.
The yard has its eye, down the road, on the inactivation of the carrier Nimitz. The lead ship in the class of 10 nuclear-powered carriers is scheduled to start that process about 2025.
Because none of the conventionally powered carriers that moved into retirement before the Enterprise posed radiological issues, they wound up all over the place. Many were simply scrapped; some were sunk deliberately as targets or for other purposes, like creating a reef. Some are now museums or in play to become one.
The Enterprise has to be disposed of very differently because of the eight nuclear reactors in its midsection, which even after defueling, still bear some radioactivity.
The first step requires removing the fuel, a process with which the Newport News yard is very familiar.
It has refueled the Enterprise three times during its career, as well as refueling four of the 10 Nimitz-class carriers launched since 1972. The fifth in the class, the Abraham Lincoln, is nearing the end of that process now; the sixth, the George Washington, is next.
Newport News also has significant experience refueling nuclear submarines and has been involved in some of their inactivations as well.
"There's a lot of similarities in some of the work, but it is different because instead of refueling the ship, you're actually positioning it for disposal," Miner said.
Four years ago, the Navy planned to tow the defueled Enterprise around South America, to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash., the proverbial graveyard for Navy nuclear-powered ships.
After the Enterprise's arrival in Bremerton, its reactors would be removed and barged to a Department of Energy site in Hanford, Wash., to be deposited in a special trench.
The rest of the vessel would be recycled in Bremerton.
Two years ago, however, the plan began to shift.
In May 2014, the Navy issued a request for information, an invitation to industry to brainstorm about how best to dismantle everything on the Enterprise except its nuclear reactors and related propulsion spaces.
In recent emails to The Pilot, the Navy said the 2012 plan, as first laid out, had been rethought.
The Enterprise dwarfs the defueled submarines commonly recycled at the Puget facility: At sea, the carrier displaced more than 95,000 tons of water, compared with the 7,800 tons of a Los Angeles-class submarine.
When the Navy began to do the math, it became clear that doing the complete recycling of the Enterprise at Puget wasn't going to work, affecting the yard's ability to do the highest-priority fleet maintenance work it's charged with executing.
Once that picture came into view, the Navy shifted its focus to commercially recycling the non-nuclear sections of the Enterprise and isolating its eight reactor plants and related spaces, sealing them into a unit it calls a "propulsion space section."
While the original idea was to ship the reactor-plant package back to Bremerton, where the reactors would be barged to the Hanford site, that, too, could change.
The Navy said last week that it issued another request for information in August, asking private industry to weigh in on possible approaches to dismantling and disposing of the sealed reactors.
The solicitation of bids for the breaking down and recycling of the rest of the Enterprise -- and forming and sealing the reactor compartments and related propulsion spaces into a separate package -- is already on the street.
The Navy issued a request for proposal, setting that chain of events in motion, during the summer. The bids are due Nov. 4. The contractor will be allowed to keep "the proceeds of the sale of scrap metals and reusable items to offset its costs of performance," according to the request.
The work is expected to be done between September 2017 and September 2019.
What happens to the propulsion space section still is an open question.
While some industry sources maintain that the Enterprise's sealed reactor-compartment package will end up in Bremerton, the Navy said in an email last week that it will consider the disposal of the propulsion space section at sites other than Puget Sound.
If it pursued that option, the Navy would deliver the sealed reactors to the site, on the condition that "all reactor plant dismantlement, radioactive waste disposal, and non-radioactive ship dismantling and recycling work (is) accomplished at a facility meeting all applicable requirements" within the United States, the Navy email said.
Miner said that Newport News Shipbuilding is an interested party and brings to the table more than its years of experience building and tending to nuclear carriers and submarines.
In early 2014, its parent company, Huntington Ingalls, broadened its nuclear portfolio by acquiring Colorado-based S.M. Stoller Corp., a provider of environmental, nuclear and technical consulting and engineering services to the U.S. Department of Energy and other customers.
The company's website cites the government's Hanford facility -- where Navy reactors have been disposed of -- as one of the places where Stoller has experience.
Early last year, Huntington Ingalls announced it had created a new subsidiary -- Stoller Newport News Nuclear, or "SN3" -- a full-service nuclear operations and environmental services company that combined Stoller and Newport News Nuclear, another of its subsidiaries.
Miner said the addition of the company's SN3 unit enables Huntington Ingalls to offer the Navy an attractive package for handling future carrier dismantlements.
"We certainly see there's an opportunity and we're interested in it," he added.
While Miner alluded to other "industry partners" without identifying them, Defense News reported last year that they could include several companies in Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, that specialize in cutting up and recycling old ships.
If the Enterprise were towed to Brownsville, its dismantling would include the creation of the propulsion space section, the sealed unit containing the ship's reactors and related spaces.
It would then be delivered by the Navy to Puget Sound or wherever else the Navy determined the work could be safely done.
Over the past three years, the Navy has awarded contracts to International Shipbreaking, All Star Metals and ESCO Marine to tow five conventional carriers -- the Forrestal, Saratoga, Ranger, Independence and Constellation -- to Brownsville for scrapping.
The amount of the awards has ranged from a penny to $6 million.
Why the huge variation?
Two of the ships were towed from the East Coast, while the other three were hauled from Bremerton, Wash., requiring trips around South America, industry sources said.
The companies make their money through the sale of the metal they harvest.
Wherever else the Enterprise may be dismantled, there's no chance it would be done at its Virginia home.
"Newport News is not pursuing dismantling the Enterprise here at our facility," Miner said. "I'll just put it straight up: That's not something we are pursuing."