This year is shaping up as a big one for the future HMAS Canberra, Australia's first helicopter landing dock and the third Royal Australian Navy vessel to bear the name of the national capital.

BAE Systems maritime director Bill Saltzer said the vessel now looked like the ship her designers had expected her to become following the recent installation of the Australian-made superstructure blocks on the massive hull.

A 29-year veteran of the shipbuilding trade, Mr Saltzer said the moment when the 300-tonne bridge block had been swung out over the hull by a crane had been tense. Although the 28,000-tonne Canberra is almost half as large again as Australia's previous biggest ship, HMAS Melbourne, she is less than one-third the size of some of the vessels Mr Saltzer has worked on.

Among other roles, he commissioned and then managed a military shipbuilding yard in the United Arab Emirates. ''I have handled overhauls and refuelling on USS Nimitz and worked on other Nimitz-class aircraft carriers including the Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington,'' he said. ''I have also worked on the USS Enterprise, which had eight nuclear reactors.''

USS Nimitz and her sister ships are 333 metres long, compared with 230 metres for the Canberra, and carry 93,405 tonnes fully laden compared with 30,700 tonnes for the Australian helicopter landing dock.

Now that the key elements of the vessel are in place, much of this year will be devoted to fitting Canberra out in preparation for her commissioning into the Australian fleet in the first quarter of next year following testing and sea trials.

Mr Saltzer said the work was on schedule and on budget. He understood that the official naming ceremony would be held early this year.

There is, however, much more to the project than just building the ship. Navantia, the designers who also built the hull, are contracted to supply the watercraft that will be shipped aboard Canberra and its sister ship, Adelaide.

The Australian Defence Force is under pressure to train crews and soldiers to make effective use of the two vessels, which have a combined cost in excess of $3.1 billion, from the day they are commissioned.

Adelaide is expected to be ready for service in 2015.

Mr Saltzer said the two vessels were world class and more appropriate to Australia's operational needs than US designs - which tend to be larger and more manpower-intensive - would have been. He said the project had resulted in the development of a highly efficient naval shipbuilding industry and expressed concern that this capability might be lost if it was not used for new projects. ''Australia is an island nation,'' he said. ''Shipbuilding is a strategic industry.''

Mr Saltzer said he would miss Canberra and Adelaide when they finally sailed away. ''Every ship, especially one as large and as complex as this one, becomes a part of the family,'' he said. ''When it sails away it is like watching a member of the family leave home.