Nerves, then celebration, as USS Gerald R. Ford passes test
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: August 2, 2017
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Struck didn't get much sleep the night before his historic landing on the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
The next-generation warship employs new technology to catapult airplanes off the flight deck and catch them safely upon landing. Both systems have had well-documented growing pains, leaving a paper trail of critical government reports and skeptical testimony before Congress.
It was Struck's job to show the systems would work as advertised.
His F/A-18F Super Hornet would be the first fixed-wing aircraft to land on the Ford and take off again.
Last Friday with the Ford at sea, Struck approached the wide-open flight deck with a chase plane behind him to document the event. The 26-year Navy veteran, a native of Tallmadge, Ohio, had completed relatively few arrested landings, between 130 and 140, he estimated.
He's a member of the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron based at Patuxent River, Md., but Hampton Roads is familiar turf. Struck had previously served with the VFA-131 "Wildcats," a strike fighter squadron based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.
The enormity of the event was not lost on him.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is huge,'" Struck said Tuesday.
As his aircraft approached, sailors who had spent years working on the new systems also fought through a range of emotions.
"I gotta say, at first it was nervous, then exciting, not only for myself but the crew," said Petty Officer 1st Class Reginald Leonard. "You put in countless hours of maintenance to watch this system go from nothing to something."
Leonard joined the Ford in August 2013 when the ship was still at Newport News Shipbuilding. He was assigned to work with the Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG, which would safely "trap" Struck's fighter jet on the flight deck.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Stoecklein worked with the new electromagnetic catapults that would shoot the Super Hornet off the flight deck about an hour later.
Stoecklein, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., the hometown of the Gerald Ford himself, has also served with the ship for several years.
"We've been waiting for this moment," he said, recalling his mood as Struck approached. "There was so much energy in the air."
Struck landed smoothly, catching the second of three arresting wires. As soon as he cleared the landing area, the cockpit felt different.
"All that pressure just faded away," he said. "I felt at home."
Sailors said they felt it, too.
When Struck nailed the landing, Leonard said it validated the countless hours he'd spent on the AAG system at the Newport News shipyard.
"It was like building your house from the bottom up," he said, "then actually getting to live in it and see it work."
Stoecklein said there was a good bit of fist-pumping going on, like a certain movie.
"It was almost like a scene from 'Top Gun,'" he said. "Everyone was pumping their hands. It was like, 'Do it again! Do it again!'"
Before the day was out, Struck had completed four landings and four launches. He noted some differences between landing on Ford and the Nimitz-class carriers.
Getting shot off the deck with EMALs "was smoother than what I was used to," he said.
He landed on the Ford with the help of landing software known by the acronym MAGIC CARPET. As tests progress, pilots will land on Ford without the help of that software. They will also do night landings.
Struck's call sign is "Coach." He earned the name from Navy colleagues when he came dressed for a kayak trip in college-themed duds. Also, he was a bit older than his buddies, having entered the Navy as an enlisted man before making transition to pilot.
More work remains
July 28th marked the first step in a longer journey the Navy must complete before the AAG and electromagnetic catapults are deemed ready for combat operations.
Naval Air Systems Command recently completed testing that confirmed a "software fix" will allow certain aircraft outfitted with wing-mounted fuel tanks to launch without exceeding stress limits. The issue was initially discovered in April 2014.
The software fix will be implemented on board the Ford in 2019 during the ship's post-shakedown period, according to Naval Air Systems Command.
The AAG prompted enough questions that the Navy considered reverting to an older system on future Ford-class carriers. It wasn't until January that Navy leaders confirrmed that the AAG would be installed on the future USS John F. Kennedy, the second ship in the Ford class.
Capt. Rick McCormack, Ford's commanding officer, said the ship will head back to sea "very shortly" to resume testing. Skeptics of AAG and EMALS have questioned how the systems will work under extended periods of duress.
A few landings on July 28th can't answer that question, but McCormack said he and his crew are confident the systems will work well.
Struck's experience provided the Navy with initial data. More launches and landings will add to the record. As the systems mature, the Navy can better gauge reliability by determining, for example, when parts need to be replaced.
"We are kind of in the infant stage on board the ship," he said, and it will be some time before they gather enough data. "But we're going to get there."