A Richland native will help lay the keel of the Navy’s newest submarine.
Dustin Utecht, 22, has been chosen to weld the initials of the sponsor of the nuclear submarine USS Washington during the Nov. 22 keel-laying in Newport News, Va., where the ship is being built.
The 2011 Richland High School graduate will be one of two Washington natives — the other the niece of a shipbuilder who will serve as flower girl — to take part in the ceremony for the third ship to be named for their home state.
He will weld the initials of Elisabeth Mabus, daughter of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, into a ceremonial steel plate that will last the life of the submarine. The ceremony marks the symbolic beginning of construction and of a long relationship between the submarine and its namesake state.
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Utecht has worked on several vessels in his time welding for shipbuilding company Huntington Ingalls Industries, including the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford, he said.
“It’s really incredible seeing it in stages,” he said. “It’s like a big puzzle, is how I describe it.”
Utecht became interested in welding after seeing his uncle ply the craft. He learned about it in shop class and later studied more in-depth at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick.
“Those were very beneficial,” he said of the classes. “I had more of an understanding than coming in blind.”
Utecht moved to Virginia after high school to join the shipyard’s apprentice school, which he found online. Huntington Ingalls spokeswoman Christie Miller said only one in 20 applicants for the school are admitted.
“Our apprentice school is highly competitive,” Miller said. “It’s pretty significant to be able to get in.”
The Washington, which is expected to be delivered to the Navy late next year, is among the Virginia class of fast-attack submarines, considered the most advanced in the world, according to Huntington Ingalls. The submarines are capable of diving to depths of 800 feet and staying submerged for up to three months, with a nuclear reactor that powers the ship to speeds of greater than 28 mph.
The shipyard has delivered 11 of the Virginia-class submarines, which replace the Los Angeles class, to the Navy so far. The Washington is one of 17 others planned.
Utecht is one of 4,000 shipbuilders working on the Washington.
He would like to expand his skills from working on submarine hulls to performing nuclear qualification welds in the future, he said. Dealing with nuclear welds is more highly skilled.
“You don’t want anything bursting or leaking,” he said.
Improved techniques and efficiency have helped cut the construction times for submarines from 90 months down to 60, said Bob Meyer, director of Virginia-class construction for Huntington Ingalls. He credits workers like Utecht with the improvement.
“They’re returning them at a pace the Navy really needs,” Meyer said.