The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has the world’s premier collection of aviation and space artifacts. Less well-known is that the museum also has an outstanding collection of aerospace models. One of the museum’s most popular models, however, is not an air- or spacecraft, but a ship, the USS Enterprise.
Launched on November 25, 1961, USS Enterprise (CVA(N)-65, later CVN-65) was the United States’ first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and at 1,123 ft. is the logest naval vessel ever built. Enterprise became an iconic symbol of the projection of US naval air power during the Cold War with deployments to Vietnam and other hot spots in the Pacific Ocean during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In September 1974, Enterprise became the first carrier to deploy with the new F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.
The Museum’s impressive 1:100 scale model of the USS Enterprise was acquired in 1982. The model’s builder, Stephen Henninger, spent approximately 1,000 hours per year for 12 years building the ship completely from scratch. His inspiration behind this ambitious project? A dare from a colleague to construct something more ambitious than the small-scale models he had been building. Employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Henninger worked on the model as his work brought him around the world: Researching in Virginia, drawing up plans in Arequipa, Peru, and building the hull in Johannesburg, South Africa. Henninger also made two trips over the life of the project to the actual Enterprise to gather the documentation needed to make an incredibly detailed model. He worked on the project from 1971 through 1982—shipping pieces between countries as he traveled, sometimes scrapping it all to start again, until the model was built to his satisfaction.
The hull is made from particle board formers attached to a hard wood keel and planked over with birch plywood. The hangar and flight decks are also made of plywood. Details are made from sheet aluminum and polystyrene, brass and aluminum tubing, balsa, and various gauge of soft wire. The ship has a full complement of aircraft – circa 1975 – which Steve built from scratch and from commercial kits he detailed. The entire air wing of 83 aircraft alone took 4,000 hours to build, with the four scratch-built E-2Cs requiring 200 hours each. The model is just over 11 feet long, 2.5 feet tall, and weighs over 250 pounds.
Although the model was given to the Museum, Steve has maintained a connection to his creation. He and fellow model shipbuilder Paul Moore have been invited several times to clean the model’s delicate features, or rearrange the aircraft into different configurations.
In 2017, Henninger arranged for one of his periodic cleanings. This time, however, he proposed a unique repair: The model was originally equipped with fluorescent lighting in the hangar deck that allowed the aircraft stored there to be easily viewed. Over the years the museum decided to turn off these lights because it was feared they would damage the model. Steve proposed to replace the individual florescent lights with a full-length strip of LED lights to once again illuminate the hangar deck. While we don’t normally modify our artifacts, this repair seemed in line with the original design of the model while also providing a measure of safety not present with the original system. Steve designed a non-invasive light strip and built a mock-up of the carrier model hangar deck in his home shop so that he was sure the lights could be installed without damage to the actual model. After a day of cleaning and installing the lights in the fall of 2016, the Enterprise model looks better than it has in years.
The model’s builder, Stephen Henninger, spent approximately 1,000 hours per year for 12 years building the ship completely from scratch.
On December 1, 2012 USS Enterprise was deactivated at Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia, in a ceremony attended by Steve Henninger. Since his days visiting the ship to gather research material for building the model, he has maintained a close relationship with the ship’s active crew and veterans. USS Enterprise was finally decommissioned on February 3, 2017 after its last reactor was defueled. Steve Henninger’s Enterprise model, however, remains a popular attraction at the Museum’s Washington DC location. It is scheduled to be a central artifact in the upcoming Cold War aviation gallery as part of the Museum’s transformation, and will continue to represent the proud ship in its prime and to tell the naval aviation story for many years to come.