ABOARD USS GERALD R. FORD — It’s taken a long time for the U.S. Navy’s newest carrier to get to the windswept Atlantic, some 100 miles off the Virginia capes.
The $13 billion Gerald R. Ford, the most high-tech aircraft carrier ever built, has had a long and well-documented list of problems — and many that still need fixing. Ford’s troubles have drawn fire from Congress, watchdogs, and even President Trump, who lamented the Navy’s decision to equip the ship with unproven electromagnetic catapults instead of the “goddamned steam” mechanisms that have flung naval warplanes aloft for six decades.
But after years of delays and billions in cost overruns, the Ford is finally beginning 18 months of rigorous tests, about half to be spent at sea. Along the way, its sailors will learn to use the new technology, like those new electromagnetic catapults.
“We’re seeing the ship come to life,” Cmdr. Mehdi “Metro” Akacem, who oversees flight operations, said Monday.
“Really, over the last couple of weeks as we’ve gotten out here [to sea], we’ve got the salt air over the flight deck, got some skidmarks on the [runway],” said Akacem, who goes by the title of Air Boss. “It’s really starting to feel like an aircraft carrier. The intangible of that is really valuable.”
This week, warplanes are flying on and off the ship, learning how its new design — the most radical change to U.S. carriers in decades — affects flight operations. Since Ford’s superstructure is smaller and further aft than the massive island on the Navy’s 10 Nimitz-class carriers, the wind flows around it differently, creating an invisible wake known as a “burble.” Because that airflow hits each plane differently, test pilots are developing type-by-type landing procedures to be written into the instruction manual for Ford-bound aircraft.
“We’re writing a book for the Ford class for the rest of history,” said Capt. J.J. Cummings, the ship’s commanding officer.
Just a few years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find many shipboard photos of the Ford, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier and the most expensive one ever built. But in recent weeks there’s been a steady stream of media on board. There’s even a government camera crew onboard posting photos and videos online.
While these sea trials are typical for any first-of-class ship, the media blitz is serving another purpose: to convince lawmakers and taxpayers that Ford’s long-troubled development problems are starting to fade away.
A lot of important eyes are watching the ship and its progress. Just two weeks on the job, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley declared that making Ford “ready as a warship as soon as practically possible” was his top priority. Two weeks later, he ordered the admiral in charge of buying aircraft carriers to establish a “permanent presence” in Norfolk, the ship’s home port. The admiral had been at the Washington Navy Yard.
James “Hondo” Geurts, the Pentagon-based head of Navy acquisition, visits the ship about every three weeks, occasionally arriving by himself and unannounced. This week he donned a bright orange survival suit — necessary for the hour-long helicopter flight over the frigid Atlantic waters — to check on its progress.
“I think the American population still thinks largely that this a ship under construction and sitting in a shipyard. It’s a ship at sea,” Geurts said. “There’s some things we gotta finish up, but relative to most of the systems that’s not the issue. Now it’s really training, getting our operating procedures done and getting all the certification done.”
Employees from Newport News Shipbuilding, the division of Huntington Ingalls Industries that builds the Ford-class carriers, are aboard for the trials. Among other duties, they are making repairs to various systems, including the ship’s magnetic weapons elevators, which have been riddled with problems. The elevators are designed to more efficiently and safely raise bombs from armories deep inside the ship up to the flight deck.
“We’re seeing more productive work underway than we would have ever expected,” Geurts said of the contractors.
“If you guys worked this hard when you’re back at the beach, we’d be in good shape. I told them that,” Cummings, the ship’s captain, said. “Cause you guys work harder, You work your asses off out here and this is great.”
Navy officials say Ford-class carriers will be more lethal and survivable than their predecessors — in part, because they’re designed with more room for aircraft and emerging technologies.
“We’re light and designed light and we’re designed to have excess capacity in our power generation to bring future weapon systems on board,” Cummings said.
The flight deck is about the same size as its Nimitz-class predecessors, but there’s about a half-acre more space for planes. Ford has a smaller island — the superstructure that holds the bridge, radars and communications antennas.
More space is freed up by the munitions elevators, which can move bombs more quickly and therefore allow fewer to be staged on the flight deck. The elevators rise to the flight deck through trap doors. On the Nimitz-class carriers, bomb assembly is sometimes done on the mess decks — disrupting sailors’ meals.
And at the recommendation of NASCAR pit crews, there are refueling points inside the flight deck, reducing the length of the hoses that gas up planes.
“The layout of the flight deck with the island further aft gives sort-of a pit road approach,” said Akacem, the Air Boss. “[W]ith advanced weapons elevators and in-deck fueling stations, it really brings the weapons and the fuel to the point of need. We think that extra 5 percent of space will allow us to taxi aircraft out of the landing area, park them once and immediately let the squadrons get to work fixing any maintenance gripes they have, re-arm, refuel and turn strike aircraft around faster, more efficiently.”
By comparison, a Nimitz flight deck is a “giant Jenga game” in which planes must be moved several times to get fuel or bombs loaded.
Up front, the electromagnetic catapults are much quieter than the steam ones.
“Below deck, the environment for the sailors, operating and maintaining the catapults and arresting gear is totally different,” Akacem said. “They used to be sweaty, drenched in hydraulic fluid, hardest-working and least-sleeping sailors on a ship,” he said. “They still work their tails off, but now they’re in largely air-conditioned spaces because…electrical equipment requires a lot of climate control.”
Ford will return to Norfolk in a few days, once the current batch of flight trials — “aircraft compatibility testing” — wraps up. But its stay won’t be long. Its flight deck certification is scheduled for March.
“The challenge for flight deck [certification] then becomes manpower and training of the sailors we have,” Akacem said. “As a new system, there’s not a deep bench of expertise to draw on.”
The F/A-18 Super Hornet, E-2D Hawkeye, T-45 Goshawk, C-2 Greyhound, and EA-18G Growler were among the planes taking part in this week’s sea trials.
“There’s a lot of learning going on, end-to-end, and we are learning a ton about how to operationalize this new technology,” Akacem said. “That’s the benefit of finally being out here at sea.”
Problems with the new weapons elevators have been heavily documented in recent years. Right now, four of 11 are working order. About 100 people on the ship were working to fix the other ones.
The elevators are complex, each using magnets to lift 12 tons of bombs and missiles, twice as much as each Nimitz elevator. As they move up and down, protective airtight doors open and close at each level. And the elevators must work in rough seas.
But elevator door parts — including guide rails — were not installed properly. “When we installed some of the items…they weren’t exactly installed in the right spot,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sonny Alexander, ordnance handling officer. “So we had to move it over a little bit. That way we get a smooth operation of that door, smooth operation of that hatch and that there’s no interference.”
The goal is to get enough elevators working so the crew has access to all of the weapons stored on the lower decks, Geurts said.
The crew has nearly 6,000 cycles on the upper-stage elevators, Alexander said.
“Very few issues [on those upper elevators],” he said. “Anything that we’ve had has sometimes been [an] operator error. We’re still learning the system.”
A learning process
Among the biggest challenges facing the ship’s commanders now is training sailors how to use the new technology.
“I think there’s more technical complexity packed into this ship than there was in the Apollo program,” Akacem said.
It’s not just the new catapults, elevators, arresting gear — but more practical items like the trash disposal or Bluetooth-equipped ovens in the kitchen.
“I don’t think there’s any five people that understand all the complexity in this ship,” Akacem said.
Since Ford is unlike the Nimitz carriers, figuring out the right number of sailors to have onboard is also a challenge.
“We’re dealing with it,” said Master Chief Petty Officer De’Andre Beaufort, the ship’s command master chief. “We may have some shortfalls, but the crew is very motivated.”
Just during the past two weeks of testing, officials said they are learning more about the ship.
“Now we’re much more in a rhythm where we’re getting the test points that we need to get done at a much faster pace,” said Capt. Elizabeth Somerville, chief test pilot for VX-23.
Said Akacem: “Our level of uncertainty has gone down so much in just a week as we’ve gone through a couple cycles of ‘hey, something little breaks’ and we apply the maintenance procedures and we fix it. “
Key for Cummings is making sure the ship leaves port on schedule and returns on schedule over the numerous deployments scheduled over the next 18 months.
“This ship is basically deployed for 50 percent of this next 18 months,” Geurts said. “The deployment rate of this ship is higher than almost any other ship in the Navy right now.”