Virginia-class sub USS Minnesota to be christened today

Virginia-class sub USS Minnesota to be christened today

Workers for the nation’s largest military shipbuilder hurriedly arranged chairs, tested microphones and inflated some 2,400 red, white and blue balloons early Friday inside a cavernous construction bay.They were moving in the shadow of the submarine Minnesota, the newest Virginia-class sub, which is set to be christened today during a ceremony at Newport News Shipbuilding.

The 377-foot, nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine was in pieces when Cmdr. John Fancher showed up at the shipyard two years ago to lead the ship’s first crew. The sailors worked with the shipbuilders to test systems as they came online and to troubleshoot problems.

“Seeing pieces and parts turn into this is incredible,” Fancher said, looking up at the hulking vessel. “They say you’ll never know a ship as well as the first ship you’re on. I’ve got to tell ya, after going through this, we know this ship pretty well.”

Sailors dressed in blue camouflage uniforms posed for photos and mingled with civilian shipbuilders. Nearby, the submarine’s sponsor, Ellen Roughead, practiced smashing a bottle of sparkling wine.

“It’s fun,” said Roughead, a Minnesota native and the wife of former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. “I want to make sure I get it right when it counts.”

Shipbuilder Dale Wagner, a 32-year shipyard employee, helped install bunks, berthing lockers and the ship’s battery. Operating heavy tools inside a cramped submarine is tough work, Wagner said.

“It’s easy compared to what these guys do,” he said, motioning toward a group of sailors. “I get to get out of there at the end of the day. If they closed the hatch, I’d scratch a hole in the side.”

The opposite was true for some of the ship’s 100 crew members, many of whom joined the Navy to go to sea and get stir crazy during prolonged shore duty.

“It can be a challenge,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Witte, the submarine’s executive officer. “But it’s also an opportunity that most sailors won’t ever have, to see a ship come together.”

The Minnesota is the 10th of a projected 30 Virginia-class submarines. Construction began in February 2008.

Weather permitting, the submarine will be moved into the water Tuesday and moored at a pier, where the final construction phase will begin.

Its sea trials could begin in the spring.

Attributed to Mike Hixenbaugh (The Associated Press)

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