After demo is scrubbed, aircraft carrier Ford catapult test successful
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press, Newport News, Va. (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 17, 2015
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The new catapult system aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford suffered an ill-timed failure Tuesday morning when technical problems scrubbed a demonstration for the media.
Tests later in the day were successful, but if nothing else, the morning non-event robbed the Navy of a chance to demonstrate firsthand the Electromagnetic Launch System, which has raised concerns about reliability and come under scrutiny from government watchdog agencies and Congress.
The test was scheduled to begin around 10 a.m. The catapult was poised to hurtle a wheeled sled that weighed in excess of 15,000 pounds off the flight deck of America's newest carrier and into the James River.
But as the deadline passed, Newport News Shipbuilding President Matt Mulherin announced the test would be delayed to due an electrical problem below deck.
It was particularly disappointing since the system worked well Monday in repeated tests, officials said. Ten sleds of varying weights were launched from Catapult 2 on Monday. Tuesday's test was on Catapult 1. The carrier has four catapults in all. The system is not yet installed on the other two.
With temperatures hovering in the 90s, Mulherin said he didn't think it was fair for everyone to wait on a sweltering flight deck for the problem to be fixed.
"We'll troubleshoot and fix those problems and be back up testing hopefully this afternoon," he said.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., word came from the shipyard of two successful launches.
The first dead load weighed 15,000 pounds and traveled at 140 knots. The second dead load weighed 8,000 pounds and traveled at 180 knots.
News outlets were not invited back a second time, but the shipyard issued multiple photos and videos.
Capt. John Meier, the Ford's commanding officer, characterized the morning problem as a minor interruption.
It was "communication-type issues, components talking together," he said. "The power distribution is good. The components are extremely well designed and very robust. We do not have material failures, if you will."
He said he was "certainly not disappointed in where we are at the test program."
Mulherin said some launch system hardware on the ship had not been fully tested at Lakehurst, N.J., where there is a ground-based version of the system.
The launch of weighted sleds into the James began June 5. Two sleds were launched that day, another on June 10 and a fourth on June 12, shipyard officials said. Then came the 10 launches Monday. Weights varied from 9,400 pounds to 80,000 pounds throughout hat period, according to information from the shipyard.
EMALS is manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics. Scott Forney, president of the company's Electromagnetic Systems Group, said delays and interruptions are to be expected when new equipment is being tested.
"We're in the middle of a test program," he said. "This is part of the shakedown."
Also undaunted was the ship's sponsor, Susan Ford Bales, the daughter of the late president who has formed close ties with the crew.
"I was here yesterday," she said. "I saw eight loads and it was perfect. We're grateful for testing. It's part of making it the ship that it is."
The launch system, supporters say, will allow the Navy to launch planes off aircraft carriers at a greater rate while requiring less maintenance. It generates power and diverts it to three energy storage units that supply four catapults. The energy is released through controllers that regulate the speed of the launch.
The technology is a much more sophisticated form of the same process that launches roller coaster cars, Forney said.
Meier said EMALS provides a smoother launch, which pilots have noticed during land-based testing.
"Steam catapults have an initial burst that is stronger and harder on an aircraft," he said. "The initial sensation of pilots who have tested up at Lakehurst is that it feels slower in the beginning -- which is exactly by design."
The criticism of EMALS goes back several years, and it includes how it was installed on Ford.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in September 2013 that some components were delivered and installed on the ship, even though the system wasn't fully tested.
Another report issued in January raised questions about whether the new catapults would allow the Ford to achieve its goal of increasing the number of flights. That came from the Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation.
Tuesday's event brought to mind a previous Navy demonstration of new technology in Hampton Roads, and a reminder that things don't always go as planned.
In July 2013, the Navy made history when an unmanned, computer-controlled drone landed aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time — the Norfolk-based USS George H.W. Bush.
Media were brought to witness the event. After another successful landing, the prototype drone tried a third time, but it detected a "navigational computer anomaly" that required it to divert to Wallops Island Air Field, where it navigated and landed without incident.
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.
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