At sea with USS Gerald R. Ford as the crew gets the last kinks out
By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: November 22, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Up in the island superstructure of USS Gerald R.
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
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
Perhaps one of the biggest is what the Ford’s C.O., Capt. J.J. “Yank” Cummings calls “our
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
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
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.
The elevators can move up to 24,000 pounds from magazines that are a lot bigger than on Nimitz carriers, which means the
“It just really adds to our agility,” said Rear Adm.
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
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
Instead of looming shorelines or hostile warships, there was only a heavily laden Maersk container ship headed to
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
Watching was air and missile combat commander Capt.
Part of what the
“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
Only about 20% of the juice the
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
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
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
The latest steaming event marked the Ford’s first sustained and intensive air wing operations — the
“We talk a lot about the new equipment, but it is these young men and women who do the job,” Rear Adm.
“They are much farther along than I was expecting,” he said.