A tale of two ships passing
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford sits in dry dock 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding waiting to be christened in this Nov. 2013 photo. Ford is the first of a new class of aircraft carriers replacing the Nimitz-class carrier launched in 1972.
NEWPORT NEWS — On the banks of the James River, in the bustle of the sprawling shipyard, two great warriors have come together, a lifetime apart.
At Pier 3, the Ford is being born.
At Pier 2, the Enterprise is dying.
The timing is coincidental - just the ebb and flow of work at the yard. But even here, where warships have come and gone for over a century, the poetry of the moment isn't lost.
Seeing the nation's latest aircraft carrier side by side with the first nuclear-powered one puts lumps in the throats of hard-hats and sailors alike.
Tom Moore, a rear admiral who oversees the Navy's carrier program from Washington, said the sight strikes a chord whenever he's in town and catches a glimpse of the flattops from Interstate 664.
"It's the past and the future right there," Moore said. "That kind of grabs me every time."
It's bittersweet. On the Gerald R. Ford - which is nearly 80 percent complete - hissing air hoses and pinging hammers are the sounds of progress. Right next door - where the Enterprise is being stripped for scrapping - those same sounds signal a funeral.
"A lot of people have emotional ties to the Enterprise," said Chris Miner, a vice president of Newport News Shipbuilding. "I've never seen anything like it, and I've been here 30-plus years. It's a dagger in the heart to see her go."
John Meier, the Ford's captain, said the scene at Piers 2 and 3 is like "A Tale of Two Cities," the novel by Charles Dickens that opens with the classic line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
"We're on the upswing and they're on the decline," Meier said. "I can only say it's good to be on this end of that life cycle."
It's impossible not to be awed in the presence of an aircraft carrier. Sheer size, capability and longevity create a warfighting machine "unmatched in the world," Moore said.
The Ford's slogan, "100,000 tons of diplomacy," is up from the 90,000-ton weight of its predecessors. Like the Enterprise, it's a prototype, the first in a new class of carriers.
The Ford's realm is a sweathouse of activity. Roughly 2,700 shipyard employees stream on board daily, with another 1,300 providing support from shops, offices and warehouses. Workers in coveralls occupy every unfinished cranny of its decks - painting, welding, wiring, twisting wrenches, shuttling materials.
As compartments are "brought to life," they're turned over to the captain. Roughly 500 of the carrier's 2,600 "spaces" now belong to Meier and the 1,000 sailors already assigned to the Ford.
"There's an incremental transfer of ownership," Meier said. "It's like eating an elephant, one bite at a time."
There's an energy in the organized chaos - the atmosphere of people on a roll. Chatter flows, jokes ricochet, and supervisors are eager to show off the carrier's next-generation features and "smart" technology.
Aircraft will be launched using electric catapults instead of steam. Systems will be state-of-the art. Automation will reduce the crew size. Accommodations will be cushier.
"This is my kid's ship," said one supervisor. "Flat screens instead of gauges."
No one seems prouder of the Ford than Meier. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, he's 50, with broad shoulders, an earnest air and enough silver in his hair to suit his new role - the biggest assignment of his career.
Technically, Meier is the Ford's "prospective" commanding officer, since the carrier isn't an official part of the fleet yet, but he hopes to still be at the helm in March 2016. That's when the $14 billion ship is scheduled to start its 50 years of duty as a seagoing airbase, carrying out its mission and making its mark.
"Being chosen is a great honor," he said. "I'm excited about the responsibility and accountability, but mostly about the sailors I get to work with. They're spectacular."
Meier lives in Virginia Beach, is married and has two sons at Kellam High School. Like all carrier commanders, he's nuclear-trained and an aviator with plenty of time in a cockpit under his belt. Back then, his call sign was "Oscar," a play on his last name.
A man on the rise, Meier comes across as polished and politically correct, a poster of the new-school military - much like his ship, which, by the way, has no urinals, a reflection of modern co-ed crews.
Old school is on the next pier, just a stone's throw away.
Capt. Bill Hamilton is known as "Boomer," a call sign earned long ago after he pushed his fighter jet past the speed of sound during war games over Valdosta, Ga. He blew the windows out of a J.C. Penney and ruptured its plumbing, soaking the merchandise.
"It was an incredible act of stupidity," he said with a grin, knowing that the same move would likely sideline a military career today. Instead, Hamilton rose through the ranks to become the last commanding officer of the Enterprise - the Big E.
"She's a hard ship," he said. "But she's amazing. One of a kind."
Literally. Built at Newport News when atomic technology was young, the Big E was the largest warship in the world, intended to be the lead in a new class of six carriers.
But the Navy decided to switch to the Nimitz design. That left the Enterprise in a category all its own, the only carrier ever built with eight reactors. All others, including the Ford, have two.
"So she became an experiment," Hamilton said. "Would eight reactors play nice together? Would it work? Would it pay off? There were no expectations she'd go past 20 years. She made it to 51."
Such a lifespan entwined the Big E with American history, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq - infusing the ship with a certain "romance," Rear Adm. Moore said.
Moore, who spent three years on the Enterprise, describes it as one of his "favorite ships of all time," even though it was manpower-intensive and harder to maintain with each passing year. Near the end, replacement parts were often made by hand, their original manufacturers long out of business.
"She was such a wild beast," Moore said - full of idiosyncrasies. "It took a lot of sweat and tears to tame her."
Serving on the Big E became a "badge of honor," Moore said. "And she was fast. There was some pride that went along with that. It's my understanding that, on her last time out, Captain Hamilton got permission to crank her up to top speed."
Standing on the dock in front of the Enterprise, Hamilton narrows one eye when he hears what Moore said about "permission."
"I didn't have to ask anybody's permission," he said. "I'm the captain."
The Navy won't say exactly how fast its carriers will go - "30-plus knots" is the standard answer - but in 2012 off the North Carolina coast, when Hamilton "opened her up" for one last hard run, he said, "she was off the charts. You can really chew up some water with 280,000 horsepower and 90,000 tons."
Now, the Big E is at rest. The yard has 1,200 employees gutting the ship, but compared to the ruckus next door at the Ford, the Enterprise seems silent as a tomb.
Its crew, once 3,000 strong, has been whittled to 750 sailors. They monitor the reactors, stand guard, and help yard engineers write the blueprint for future defuelings. Even on death row, the Enterprise is setting precedents. No one has ever scrapped a nuclear-powered carrier before.
Safety concerns keep Hamilton from giving tours. Yawning holes have been cut through decks to access the reactors. Interiors have been stripped, walls torn down, and the mast, antennas, radars and war systems removed.
"There are times when I'm on board," Hamilton said, "and I have to stop myself and think, 'Where am I?' So much of it is already unrecognizable."
At 58, Hamilton is less than a decade older than the Ford's new captain. But he has the bearing of an old salt, the weathered look and wide stance of a man with permanent sea legs. He lives in Chesapeake with his wife. Their two daughters are grown, married and living elsewhere.
When the Big E's nuclear fuel is removed in 2016 and its skeleton is towed to Puget Sound in Washington state to be broken apart, Hamilton will "walk off into the sunset" as well. He has plans to go play with his grandkids, maybe retire to his native Alabama.
"I'll see her all the way to the end," he said of the mountain of gray steel behind him.
"It's time. For both of us."