For generations, Newport News Shipbuilding employees have counted on the familiar sound of the shipyard’s whistle to alert them to the start and end of shifts and lunch breaks. Most shipbuilders didn’t notice, but last week marked the beginning of a new era.
After Jim O’Brien, retiring director of Facilities, turned a lever in the Powerhouse to sound the whistle at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, a new automated system was brought online. Now – for the first time in NNS history – a shipbuilder no longer has to manually sound the whistle.
“I’ve been trying to get them to automate it for the past several years, and we finally got it done. I’m happy about that. I just wanted to end my career being the last person to blow the whistle,” said O’Brien, whose career at NNS spanned more than 38 years. “I’m proud to work for the greatest shipyard in the world, and I hope the legacy continues.”
While most employees won’t notice any change with the automated system, Scott McCullough – one of the shipbuilders who had the weighty responsibility to ensure the whistle sounded on time – will.
“It’ll free us up from a lot of stuff,” he said, especially having to travel back to the Powerhouse from wherever he may be working in the shipyard. However, McCullough added that sounding the whistle manually “is a personal touch” that he’ll miss.
General Foreman Mike Wallace said the change is part of an ongoing effort to automate a number of processes. “Our people are out across the whole yard, so it disrupts what they’re trying to do to come back here to blow the whistle,” he said.
Automation helps reduce the risk of a late or missed whistle, which happens infrequently – maybe a couple of times per year – Wallace said. The system still allows for manual operation of the whistle, if necessary.
“This was a very unique project. Working with the customer to ensure we install a user-friendly system was key to the automation process. This system will free up operators during each shift,” said Brian Johnston II, a project engineer who helped facilitate the move to the automated system.
So how long has NNS had a whistle? Wallace and Johnston said a number of shipbuilders researched records and could not find a definitive answer. However, it likely dates back more than a century in some form. A May 1919 edition of The Shipbuilder, NNS’ employee newsletter at the time, mentions a “four o’clock whistle.”
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