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Airman Stephen Lutz, a quality assessor on the USS Kitty Hawk, checks the thickness of paint applied to the flight deck Monday after the crew had applied layers of paint and a new, non-skid surface.
Airman Stephen Lutz, a quality assessor on the USS Kitty Hawk, checks the thickness of paint applied to the flight deck Monday after the crew had applied layers of paint and a new, non-skid surface. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The USS Kitty Hawk’s flight deck often is referred to as “4.1 acres of sovereign American territory.”

And virtually every time the ship pulls back in to port, that territory gets a face lift.

This week, as the ship prepares for another departure, work crews are putting finishing touches on a monthlong project to “re-deck” some 80,000 square feet with a bumpy, tar-like substance known as “non-skid.”

The project began just after the ship returned Dec. 13 from a seven-week at-sea period, during which prolonged flight operations and weather wreaked their normal wear and tear on the deck.

“It’s a big job, and it’s done a lot more frequently than people would think,” said Ensign Greg Curl, the Kitty Hawk’s air bosun. “At the least, the landing area is done after every cruise, and this time we’re doing a little more.”

Most of the labor is done by Japanese workers from Yokosuka’s Ship Repair Facility and other contractors.

On old portions of the flight deck near the back of the ship, a series of gouges from aircraft tailhooks are easily visible.

Before non-skid can be rolled onto the deck, all of the old coating must be removed. To do that, workers use both high-pressure air and water blasters. Once they reach bare metal, workers can apply a primer, a super-thin layer of paint and the new non-skid.

Part of the job is ensuring the paint layer does not exceed seven one-thousandths of an inch and the non-skid is not thicker than five one-thousandths of an inch; any variance from these exacting standards and the coatings break apart too soon or lose their “profile” — their ability to grip. To that end, sailors inspect the new coats with electronic gauges.

“If the paint or non-skid is more than that thickness above the metal, we’ve got to tear it all back off and start all over again,” said Airman Stephen Lutz, a Kitty Hawk quality assurance worker.

In his year and a half on the ship, Lutz has seen the process done four times, he said.

One of the concerns this time is that the non-skid — a mixture of fast-drying epoxy and gravel — will not dry properly at cold temperatures. Because temperatures have been in the low 30s since the work began, specialists have been called in from the United States to ensure the non-skid dries properly.

“That’s one of the advances that’s been made over the years,” said Wayne Helmuth, a non-skid representative from Naval Air Forces Pacific.

“The old non-skid could not be applied below 50 degrees so you would have to take the ship to Singapore or somewhere else warm. Today they’ve engineered it so that it’s fast-drying even at low temperatures,” he said.

Military regulations call for replacing the non-skid after every 10,000 aircraft landings, Helmuth said. Each 5-gallon can of the substance should cover 125 square feet, at the appropriate coating thickness.

The whole job, in terms of workers, materials and time, comes to about $7 per square foot, Helmuth said — about $560,000 per re-decking.

The final touch is to carefully re-paint the flight-deck lines that help pilots land their aircraft and deck crews to maneuver them on board.

“We want everybody to land where they’re supposed to land,” Curl said.

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