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At sea with USS Gerald R. Ford as the crew gets the last kinks out

A flight deck sailor signals to a pilot, in position to connect to the USS Gerald R Ford's catapult, during the new carrier's latest steaming event off the Virginia and North Carolina shore in November 2020.

DAVE RESS, THE DAILY PRESS/TNS

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: November 22, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Up in the island superstructure of USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest carrier, work at sea feels much the same as ever for Petty Office 1st Class Scott Torres, an air traffic controller, and Lt. Cmdr. Tyler Dunn, an officer of the deck when he is standing watch on the bridge.

Torres’ job on the mini-skyscraper standing on the starboard side of the flight deck is to guide aircraft in, maintaining the 55-second interval between planes that’s the Navy goal.

Dunn, an aviator who’s also qualified as, in his words, a “ship driver,” was the officer of the deck commanding the 100,000-ton Ford’s movements as a 180-foot long supply ship came up alongside in the carrier’s latest four week “independent steaming event.”

But the real differences in the Ford — the first of its class and the first new carrier design in 50 years — lie many steep ladder-ways below where those two sailors work.

Perhaps one of the biggest is what the Ford’s C.O., Capt. J.J. “Yank” Cummings calls “our NASCAR pit stop.”

The Pit Stop

Because the island, smaller than those of the Navy’s current fleet of Nimitz class nuclear carriers, is set farther toward the stern of the 1,100 foot long carrier, there’s more space for planes on the forward, starboard part of the flight deck. That’s where aircraft have been placed to prep for flight.

Spaced out along the center line of the deck in Cumming’s pit stop are a set of purple-edged, 3-by-3-foot hatches.

They’re what Cummings calls “our gas stations,” and by being placed there, instead of at the far starboard side of the flight deck, as on the Navy’s current class of nuclear carriers, Newport News Shipbuilding designs hoped for a faster turnaround for the carrier’s planes.

That also means less complicated movement when they land, refuel and rearm to relaunch on their missions.

But it’s one thing for shipbuilders to know they’ve got a good idea and another for sailors to figure out how best to use it.

On the Ford’s latest “steaming event” 60-plus miles off the Virginia and North Carolina coast, Cummings said the carrier’s air wing and the dozens of flight deck sailors — yellow-shirted for directing planes, purple for the fueling teams, green for the catapult and arresting gear team and red for ordnance — have been working on the best ways of moving planes around.

They’re key to the carrier’s efforts to hit its marks of launching four planes in a bit more than a minute and a half and landing planes — with the essential help of thick wire rope cables as well as Torres’ careful guidance — every 55 seconds.

But they’re also key to one of the Ford’s most important missions — getting its planes back in the air quickly when they need fuel and arms.

What the sailors have been figuring out over the past weeks of intensive operations — averaging some 50 sorties a day — could well be the way the Navy’s new Ford class carriers operate for the next 60 to 80 years, Cummings said.

The elevators

It’s not all happening on the flight deck, either.

On the deck immediately below where FA-18 SuperHornets roared off into the sky and slammed into the arresting gear cables, Lt. Cmdr. Paul Castillo’s ordnance team drilled on assembling various weapons packages and operating the new, heftier elevators that bring bombs and other ordnance up from the magazines deep in the ship’s hull. On the flight deck, the elevators open with two doors, rather than the single, large door on Nimitz class carriers. That means the doors aren’t tall enough to hit aircraft wings, another design change that simplifies aircraft movements.

The elevators can move up to 24,000 pounds from magazines that are a lot bigger than on Nimitz carriers, which means the Ford can carry a wider variety of weapons than other carriers and its ordnance team has new setups and steps to learn as they arm aircraft.

“It just really adds to our agility,” said Rear Adm. Craig Clapperton, commander of the carrier strike group organized around the Ford, which usually includes a destroyer squadron and guided missile cruiser.

Where the red-shirted ordnance sailors work is another new feature of the Ford’s design.

In the past, they’d be testing and arming bombs on the busy flight deck — or sometimes at night, on the mess deck, where sailors normally eat.

“It’s really a lot easier, it’s making everybody more useful,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Downtrelle Rasberry.

Keeping that critical ordnance work off the flight deck or away from the magazines is a huge safety improvement, Castillo said.

So is something else about the new elevators, which have drawn their share of criticism from government watchdogs who contend that it is taking too long to certify them.

The elevators move on steel rails, powered by travelling “stators” — the electromagnets at the heart of electric motors — or by a backup system of motors on the platform itself.

“These are really fine tolerances here, a sixteenth of an inch or less,” he said.

The rails, stators and backup platform motors replace the hydraulic systems used in other weapons elevators — and, a key for Castillo and his team — mean there’s no leaking oil or hydraulic fluid around to create a fire hazard while handling explosives.

Checking and double checking and testing to be sure the new system’s components don’t get knocked out of true is part of what the Ford is working on. Certification — there are still a couple of elevators to complete — involves more than the elevators, meanwhile. It also means validated safety procedures, fire protections and the ways sailors handle and move weapons.

Drilling, drilling, drilling

The latest steaming event marked the first time the Ford’s strike group conducted integrated operations — basically, drilling on the coordinated actions all the ships and aircraft would need to do to deal with surface ship attacks, submarine threats and strikes against sea, air or land targets.

Earlier this week, they practiced the drill for going through narrow straits — it was some 60 miles off the North Carolina shore.

Instead of looming shorelines or hostile warships, there was only a heavily laden Maersk container ship headed to Norfolk off the port beam for the bridge team to track as the helmsman made the sharp turn to starboard required for the exercise, and other sailors watched screens for the new dual band radar installed for operating in narrow waters.

But, down in the strike group commander’s dimly lit tactical command and control room, one of the large, glowing bloom screens on the wall displayed the virtual, dog-legged transit the strike group was to pass through, after deploying helicopters to keep the careful watch they’d be making if the Ford were eventually to go through the straits of Hormuz or Malacca. Green blips showed where the strike group ships and other vessels were. The strike group was inside the lines.

Watching was air and missile combat commander Capt. Corey Keniston, normally stationed on the strike group cruiser he commands, USS Gettyburg, stationing this missile command officers on the carrier. He’d be running a missile defense operation once the transit exercise was cover.

Part of what the Ford has been testing over the past few weeks is the idea of having onboard combat control officers from Keniston’s operation as well as the separate information warfare command, responsible for electronic warfare and cyber security operations, Clapperton said.

“We’re flattening the battle space,” Clapperton said, pointing to Keniston, also known as the whiskey commander.

More face-to-face coordination is possible now because another feature of the Ford’s design was to locate all the command and control centers close to one another.

Down in the hull

Another key feature of the Newport News-designed Ford is buried deeper in the hull: a massive boost in electric generating power.

Only about 20% of the juice the Ford generates is used, even with the significant increase in electricity use that comes with the new weapons elevators, electromagnetic catapult for launching aircraft from the flight deck and stepped up radar and sensing capability.

The idea was to build for the future, Clapperton said.

That future could include power-hungry new laser weapons, radar and sensors, in addition to still-to-be-conceived aircraft.

The Ford’s new — and often criticized — catapult and the arresting system’s computer controlled “water twister” turbines that replace the hydraulic equipment that absorb the shock of stopping short a jet when landing are both designed to handle heavier and lighter aircraft than older carriers can safely handle, in addition to the Navy’s current lineup of carrier planes.

Another not-obvious-to-the-eyes feature of the Ford was on the echoing, multistory high hangar deck — empty now since most of the air wing was up in the sky, said Cmdr. Carl Koch, the ship’s supply officer.

The supply ship delivery that officer of the deck Dunn had managed a few days before had unloaded 183 pallet loads of food, the last at about 11 in the morning.

On older carriers, breaking down that many pallets and humping the boxes down to the ship’s various storerooms would have tied up the hangar deck for day, and required calling in a work team of 100 sailors from outside the supply department with plenty of forklifts and other gear buzzing around.

But thanks to a new set of storage elevators in the Newport News design, Koch and his team could move those pallets directly down to the storerooms, clearing the hangar deck — usually reserved for critical maintenance and repair work — by 1 p.m. that same day. Once off the hangar deck, Koch’s sailors could break down the pallets as needed once they were in the storeroom.

Getting the kinks out, and learning how to best operate in the new layout with the new equipment is the central mission of the Ford’s current post delivery test and trials operations, which will run through mid-2021.

“The pace is definitely picking up,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary Bone, an aviation support equipment technician, responsible for maintaining and repairing the shipboard gear the airplanes depend upon.

The latest steaming event marked the Ford’s first sustained and intensive air wing operations — the Navy calls them cycles, referring to the repeated launches, landings, rearming and refueling operations needed to keep its planes on their mission. It makes for a day-in, day-out process of practice, refinement, revision, testing — and more practice, Cummings said.

“We talk a lot about the new equipment, but it is these young men and women who do the job,” Rear Adm. John Meier, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said this week, after making his first visit to the Ford while it was underway.

“They are much farther along than I was expecting,” he said.

(c)2020 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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USS Gerald R. Ford steams through the Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 7, 2019.
ZACHARY MELVIN/U.S. NAVY