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USS Gerald R. Ford takes another step in its long, and expensive, journey

Chief Warrant Officer Todd Williamson and his team have been practicing with the USS Gerald R. Ford's Close-in Weapons System (mount 23 is behind him on the ship's stern) as the new carrier goes through its combat systems qualification exercise.

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By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: March 11, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — From the fantail of USS Gerald R. Ford, as F/A-18s roar past a few yards overhead, Chief Warrant Officer Todd Williamson was testing the carrier’s last line of defense.

Making sure the Close-in Weapons System Mount 23 — a combination multiple-barrel cannon, capable of firing 4,500 rounds a minute, tied to radar and computers — can do its job of knocking down missiles or aircraft is just one part of one of the last big tasks in the carrier’s year-and-half long post-delivery test and trial period.

Williamson and his team are in the midst of combat systems qualifications — making sure Ford’s guns, radar, communications and command and control systems can do what the Navy promised 13 years ago, when it persuaded Congress to fund the first of a new generation of carriers.

At the same time, pilots are using the carrier for flights to earn certification in taking off and landing at sea — which explains those fighters screaming past Williamson’s station every couple of minutes.

The Ford has qualified 184 fleet replacement pilots and 139 student aviators so far in its testing and trial period, including just recently the first students to use the new precision landing modes, a technology that automates a lot of the fancy stick and throttle work.

To do that, the Ford has launched and recovered planes 7,150 times, using two controversial new systems.

One is the electromagnet-based catapult system that drew presidential ire when Donald J. Trump suggesting going back to the steam catapults the Navy used for decades. The other is a new arresting gear system that use electric induction motors and water turbines instead of hydraulic systems to bring jets flying in at over 100 knots to a dead stop.

One reason the Navy likes the new catapult, despite the longer- and costlier- than expected development of the system, can be seen on the flight deck, when a green-shirted aviation boatswain’s mate dashes over to an F/A-18 waiting to be launched, holding a two-foot black box over his head.

That box shows the pilot and the shooter in the “bubble,” the control station just peeking up over the deck, a precise readout on the plane’s weight. With that information, the shooter can program the catapult to precisely match the force used to the actual weight of the plane.

“F equals M A — it means we can reduce the stress on the plane,” said Capt. Jeremy Shamblee, the Ford’s executive officer, reciting the force equals mass times acceleration formula from high school physics.

The certification flights also amasses the data that Capt. Paul Lanzilotta says is showing the new systems are reliable — something that Government Accountability Office has wondered about.

The work testing and training on combat systems during Ford’s current turn at sea, which started last week, follows a pierside maintenance and material management assessment by the Naval Air Force Atlantic’s in-house experts.

For Chief Petty Office Noel Barker, of the Ford’s internal inspection force, it meant being followed around as he and his team did their regular inspections, as well as a review of their inspection plans and procedures, and ultimately, 100 different spot checks. The Ford earned a grade of 91.3 out of 100 on that.

Combat systems qualification is a multistep process that starts with maintenance and moves on to running computerized simulations to tracking real targets — generally, Lear jets — to eventually live fire on drones and other targets, Williamson said.

The systems are guns and missiles tightly integrated with radar, other sensors and telecommunications systems.

The maintenance review meant taking apart and reassembling all the equipment in his NATO Sea Sparrow missile work center, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Samuel Lantinga. The aim is to make sure he follows all the procedures in the maintenance review cards (they’re actually big sheets of paper) properly.

Then, the job is making sure the system works.

“There must be like 100,000 lines of code to check,” Lantinga said.

In a way, that’s the point of the test and trial period — it’s not just about the gear on the ship, but about the sailors who really make the ship run, said Lanzilotta, the Ford’s CO.

“With C-Squat [combat systems qualification], sailors will be sitting down with an expert to their right and an expert to the left, really getting into it,” he said.

The current qualification effort focuses on what the Ford can do to defend itself. But when deployed, the Ford will be part of a carrier strike group including guided missile cruisers and destroyers.

Its next work time at sea will be with the other ships in the group, making sure its combat systems and their anti-missile, anti-submarine, anti-aircraft and anti-ship defenses coordinate well — the aim is that Williamson won’t have to call on that last line of defense of CIWS Mount 23.

The next at-sea period will continue the combat systems qualification with live firing of missiles.

The test and trial period is slated to end this spring. Then, sailors will finish stringing the sensors that will track how the ship responds to the shock trials — basically big explosions close to the ship — that will be last major step before a trip back to Newport News Shipbuilding for a final check-up.

dress@dailypress.com

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A Navy FA-18 pilot working on carrier qualification makes a final approach to USS Gerald R. Ford.
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