NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The hoopla of its christening long gone, the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford has entered a new outfitting phase at Newport News Shipbuilding.
And despite criticisms of key systems, the Navy likes what it sees — so far.
"We're kind of in the infancy stage of the test program, and the early returns are good," said Rear Adm. Tom Moore, the program executive officer of aircraft carriers. "We have a long way to go."
Christened in November, the Ford is a first-in-class aircraft carrier with a variety of new systems, including those that launch and recover aircraft. Because so much is new, its 26-month test/integration phase is about three months longer than that of the current Nimitz-class carriers.
Why longer? One example of the Ford's complexity is the electromagnetic launch system, designed to propel aircraft off the deck more smoothly than steam-driven c+atapults employed on the current Nimitz class.
The steam-powered catapults can be tested separately. The Ford's electromagnetic system functions as an integrated whole, with three "energy storage groups" providing power to the four tracks. If one group fails, the other two can compensate.
The system takes longer to evaluate because components cannot be tested individually.
But work is clearly proceeding throughout the 77,000 ton ship, with sailors and shipbuilders working side by side. So far, according to Moore:
About 6.6 million feet of cable has been installed. The carrier will have more than 9 million feet when complete.
29 of the 33 fire pumps are up and running.
Five of the nine air conditioning plants, each weighing 1,100 tons, have been tested. That might not be a big deal during this brutal winter, but the ship should be fully air conditioned by summer.
Of the more than 2,600 various spaces on the ship, about 200 have been completed. The Navy has accepted 135 of those, and that number is increasing every week.
As of last week, the Ford's onboard crew numbered 737 – 76 officers and 661 enlisted. When it goes to sea, the ship will have about 2,500 crew members, not including an air wing. That's about 700 less than a Nimitz class carrier.
The test phase is will be closely watched because key systems on the Ford have come under scrutiny from government watchdogs.
In September, the Government Accountability Office said the Ford may continue to experience problems after it joins the fleet because major systems lack reliability. An internal assessment from the Pentagon released earlier this year raised similar questions.
One focus of both reports was that electromagnetic launch system.
The Navy has defended the new launch system, saying the concerns have been overstated. On the Ford, all of the below-deck equipment for the system has been installed and work has begun on the catapult troughs on the flight deck, Moore said.
Moore said he expects the launch system to be turned on for the first time in August. A second milestone should happen in October-November 2015 when the Ford launches a series of weighted sleds into the James River, simulating the takeoff of a fighter jet.
As work proceeds on Ford, the next carrier in the class is already taking shape at Newport News. Massive sections of CVN-79, to be named for John F. Kennedy, are now in the shipyard. Moore said current work on the Ford should help both the Navy and the shipyard when it comes time to prepare the Kennedy for service.
"We have a very active knowledge capture program," he said. "We're already folding lessons learned into the production of 79, even though there will be years between deliveries."
In a way, the Ford sailors are helping to write the playbook for future flattops.
"On previous Nimitz-class carriers, you always had a cadre of sailors who had been on previous construction projects, and the systems were very, very familiar for them," Moore said. "On the Ford, that's not the case, It's a new ship with a lot of new developmental systems."