NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — After a week full of finishing touches that included 90 gallons of gray paint and the installation of a new lighting system, the shipyard is ready to place its redesigned island on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.
Newport News Shipbuilding, the nation's largest shipyard and a unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is set to place the island onto the carrier Saturday, a construction milestone and one of the late steps in the process of completing the ship's structure.
The island has a distinct shape compared to those on the Nimitz-class carriers that – like the Ford – were built in Newport News.
The Nimitz-class' hull numbers are white against a gray background.
But two shipyard painters said the 16-foot, 2-inch tall No. "78" on the Ford, instead features three shades of gray.
There's still the classic Navy gray background, but there's also a thin border painted a shade called "ocean gray" and a lighter shade for the inside portions of the seven and the eight.
And rather than being surrounded by individual light bulbs, the numbers are illuminated by a fiber optic lighting system.
Shipyard spokeswoman Christie Miller said the lighting "is more energy efficient and requires less maintenance than the legacy incandescent system."
The Nimitz-class design used more than 200 50-watt incandescent light fixtures, Miller said, and required about 500 man hours of maintenance a year for replacing burnt out bulbs and fixtures and repairing cable exposed to harsh weather.
The new system, she said, "requires virtually no maintenance."
Charles Pierce, 60, a painter who has worked for four decades at the shipyard, said the new paint layout and lighting make the new island stand out.
"It's totally different," said Pierce, who also worked on the island of the USS George H. W. Bush.
Pierce was part of a 17-person team that applied color to the island last week. His co-worker Brent Wiggins said it took two days to do the initial round of painting, and then touch-up work took another day.
Wiggins said they used 90 gallons of paint in total, 8 gallons of which was needed for the giant hull number.
The redesigned island weighs 493 metric tons, and its equipment weighs another 62 tons.
It stands 72 feet above the flight deck and has nine deck level, or stories. And it is topped with state-of-the-art radar systems
Painters worked on scaffolding to finish up the island, and both Pierce and Wiggins said even after decades at the shipyard you never really get fully accustomed to the heights.
"I can't stand the height," said Pierce, who hadn't even flown on a plane until two years ago when he visited his son, who at the time was serving in the Army in Texas.
But, he said, "once you get up there and go to work, you don't think about anything but your work."
At Saturday's event, which is not open to the public, the shipyard will continue an island landing tradition by placing a time capsule in the ship.
Typically the capsule contains memorabilia about the ship's namesake. Miller declined Thursday to say what ship sponsor Susan Ford Bales, Ford's daughter, plans on leaving with the ship.
However on the Bush, sponsor Dorothy Bush Koch left a manuscript of a book about her father.
That time capsule also contained a handwritten letter from Bush and a set of his Navy aviator wings.
The shipyard is 90 percent finished with the structure of the Ford, and 53 percent of the way through overall construction.
The Ford, which had its keel laid in November 2009 is expected to be christened later this year.