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Command Master Chief J.D. Port said that with sea trials for the USS George H.W. Bush just a few weeks away, the thing he is most looking forward to is “The look on everyone’s face when they see what it’s like when a crew comes to life.” Here, Port stands in front of a scupture of the former president and ship's namesake as a naval aviator during World War II.

Command Master Chief J.D. Port said that with sea trials for the USS George H.W. Bush just a few weeks away, the thing he is most looking forward to is “The look on everyone’s face when they see what it’s like when a crew comes to life.” Here, Port stands in front of a scupture of the former president and ship's namesake as a naval aviator during World War II. (Kevin Baron / S&S)

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RELATED STORY:President lands on carrier named after his father

NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. – More than five years after the keel was laid, a rainbow of signal pennants, huge American flags and patriotic bunting adorned the fully-dressed and nearly-completed aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on Friday, as thousands of crewmembers busily prepared the ship and its pier for Saturday’s commissioning ceremony featuring its namesake and his son, President George W. Bush.

With sea trials just weeks away, the crew of more than 5,000 who labored to get her ready were notably excited, and many said that after the speeches end and rows of white chairs are cleared, there was only one thing left to do: put to sea.

“Definitely, definitely. That’s what I’m really ready to do,” said an excited Petty Officer Keith Hasker, 27, an aviation ordnanceman from Houston.

Reporters were escorted through several areas of the ship, from the crew quarters to the bridge. At each turn, officers and enlisted men and women proudly showed off their creation, designed and assembled plank-by-plank with Northrup Grumman-Norfolk shipbuilders.

The senior President Bush spent about four hours onboard the ship Thursday, and made a surprise appearance at the pier Friday afternoon for one more look.

The Bush, the tenth and final Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to be built, features several equipment and software upgrades and structural design changes, especially to the island, and more of its systems have gone digital.

Primary flight control, or “Pri-Fly”, where the air boss and mini-boss overlook the flight deck, is a bit roomier. The bridge windows are a bit larger. The mast is a little curvier.

But to most sailors, walking the decks of Bush will be reassuringly familiar. For now, the bridge will continue navigating the seas the old-fashioned way: by paper charts.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Perry Evans, from Chilton, Wisc., said the captain and the navigator typically will spend 18 to 20 hours a day in the pilot house. There, they will test out the latest navigational aid.

“We’re going to be the first aircraft carrier to have the new the Electronic Charting Display Information System,” said Evans. “The paper will become the backup.”

The ship will probably will make the switch to the GPS-based system in late 2009 or 2010, he said. “All we’ll do is punch in certain places where we want to go. Like a computer game — press start, and off we go.”

Giving up trusted nautical charts is not easy for this veteran seafarer, who is, in a word, “nervous,” he said with a grin. “Well, me being 21 years in the Navy and used to doing it the old way, yeah, we’re a bit nervous about it. But guys like our navigator are all excited about it.”

The system already is receiving high-marks on the USS Cape St. George, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. “They love it. They say it’s a phenomenal system. It accounts for the wind, it accounts for the current ... but it’ll be interesting to see what it does for a big ship like an aircraft carrier. There’s a big difference between 8,000 tons and 100,000 tons,” Evans said.

One of the most visible design changes is the larger island, the tower above the flight deck that contains several command centers. In addition to the Pri-Fly and bridge, there are now internal ladders throughout the island. The main mast pole has been tapered to enclose wiring and piping systems, and the aft mast has been repositioned to the island.

The Combat Direction Center, or CDC watch, which looks for incoming air, surface or sub-surface threats, now has control over an upgraded NATO Sea Sparrow anti-surface missile system that protects the ship if necessary. The darkened room also features a more efficient seating configuration.

The ship also has improved systems to manage the movement of aircraft. Aircraft weapons elevators are positioned to emerge on the flight deck at the aft base of the island, rather than the center of the flight line. The catapult launch areas below have a new touch-screen system, allowing easier control of the catapult’s firing sequence. Each of the ship’s four catapults is like a double-barreled shotgun capable of reloading every three to five seconds to fire at rate of 160 knots.

Inside, the Carrier Command Approach room is dimly lit only by a new video display system that automatically integrates the tracking order of incoming aircraft with the status board. The system is still called “Mr. Hands,” from the days when a video camera aimed at cards on a blackboard would only show human hands moving around. But now it can be seen in all the ready rooms, the bridge, and flight deck control, which helps the skipper decide where to steer the ship.

“They have to know an incredible amount of information to make decisions up there,” said Ensign Dianna Morgan, from Danville, Ill., including the weight of each incoming aircraft so that the arresting gear on the flight deck can be set accordingly before each landing. “They only a have a minute to a minute-and-a-half in order to do all of this. It’s a very choreographed, very ... it takes a lot of teamwork.”

Indeed, Command Master Chief J.D. Port said that the thing he is most looking forward to is, “the look on everyone’s face when they see what it’s like when a crew comes to life.”

Each carrier contains a “tribute room” to its namesake, and the USS Bush’s is a true mini-museum, featuring dozens of memorabilia showcases of the president’s life and public service. On display are a flag from the vessel that pulled Bush from the Pacific Ocean during World War II, a marble ornament from Saddam Hussein’s palace, and the letter awarding Bush the Distinguished Flying Cross that was signed by Vice Adm. John S. McCain Jr., the father of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

As the Bush closes out the Nimitz-class era, the room fittingly includes a World War II-era letter to home that the naval aviator wrote to his parents. It is symbolic of how daily life has changed in the Navy. On this ship, Petty Officer Amber Kitchens manages the computer network that allows more than 5,000 people to send emails home from the ship’s library, around the clock.

“Keeping up with the times today is a lot easier,” said Kitchens, with remarkable technology changes in just her eight years in the service. “It’s a good morale booster for the junior sailors.”

But morale already was high aboard the carrier on Friday. US Navy Seaman Alex McKelvey, 21, spent a year and nine months preparing the Bush for the duty. After all the hard work, the young aviation ordnanceman from Erie, Pa., said he is looking forward to seeing one thing: “Ports. I want to have fun.”

See more photos here.

USS George H.W. Bush, by the numbers

2 nuclear reactors

4 bronze propellers

4high-speed 4,000-sq foot aircraft elevators

4.5 acres offlight deck

20stories tall above the waterline

20 years oflife expectancy before the reactors needing refueling

21foot diameter of each propeller

30knots top speed

30tons, weight of each propeller

80combat aircraft capacity

90days of food and supplies to last at sea

246 miles of pipe

325 feet, the distancein which two 3-in. wide arresting wires can stop an airplane flying 155 mph.

360lbs, weight of each link of anchor chain

500 tons of aluminum

1,092 feet in length, nearly as long as the Empire State Building is high

1,400 telephones

1,600 miles of cable and wiring

14,000 pillowcases

25,000 steel plates, each 30x10 ft.

28,000 sheets

30,000 light fixtures

47,000 tons of structural steel

97,000 tons of displacement, when loaded

400,000 gallons of sea water converted to fresh water daily (enough for 2,000 homes)

700,000 metal pieces form its base

Stripes in 7

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