"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity": 1st crew of new aircraft carrier Ford excited for its commissioning
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 10, 2017
NORFOLK, Va. — Petty Officer First Class Marcus Steed looks forward to the day, many years from now, when he can point to the deployed USS Gerald R. Ford and tell his grandchildren he was there well before generations of new sailors.
“I’m a plankowner,” Steed said, using a phrase indicating he’s a member of the Ford’s first crew.
Less than two weeks before the Navy commissions its most expensive and technologically advanced aircraft carrier, sailors assigned to the service’s first-of-class Ford spoke Monday of their excitement seeing it come to life. The Ford is the first aircraft carrier to join the fleet since the USS George H. W. Bush in 2009.
“I’ve been here when there was no paint, no anything,” Steed said, speaking from the Ford’s hanger bay as sailors worked around him. “It was virtually an empty shell.”
The $12.9 billion Ford’s beleaguered past of busting budgets and delivery deadlines is well-documented. The Ford originally was expected to be delivered to the Navy in September 2015 but joined the fleet in May. The Government Accountability Office has for years cited problems with development and reliability in some of the carrier’s most advanced technologies, including dual-band radar, an Advanced Arresting Gear system that catches aircraft on the flight deck as well as its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, called EMALS, which replaces steam catapults.
The Navy has said its newest flattop is expected to require less manpower and be able to launch more sorties, and has the flexibility to launch and land a greater variety of aircraft, including unmanned ones.
EMALS made headlines in May when President Donald Trump called it “no good” and said the Navy should revert to steam because the new system costs too much.
Those problems seemed to be a thing of the past Monday. Capt. Rick McCormack, the ship’s commanding officer, said he has confidence in the new technologies.
The Ford will get underway in coming weeks for flight operations to test the arresting gear, he said. As a first-of-its kind system, “a lot of folks on board are excited to go ahead and operate.”
“With all new technologies there’s risks, and that’s why we’re here, is to go out there and shake them down, make sure it’s working right,” McCormack said.
The most visible difference between the Ford and its most-recent predecessors in the Nimitz class is the location of its “island,” or command center. The island on the Ford sits 140 feet further back, or aft, from the familiar mid-ship location on the Nimitz carriers, giving the 5-acre flight deck a larger feel.
“It kind of opens up the deck a bit,” McCormack said.
For Lt. Cmdr. Jaime Roman, the Ford’s aircraft handler, that extra real estate is a “good thing” as he coordinates movements on the flight deck.
“I know with the island being back aft, we have more room up forward to park more aircraft,” Roman said.
The Ford will be commissioned July 22 during a ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, but it is expected to take another couple of years before it becomes fully operational. The carrier and its crew will next enter into trials to test and correct deficiencies and install other critical combat systems before it begins operating with an air wing, McCormack said.
A first deployment could be about four years off, though “the world can change between now and then,” McCormack said.
Whether Petty Officer First Class Jeremy Stoecklein will see a deployment on the Ford remains to be seen. He’s been assigned to the new carrier for a little more than 3½ years and works on its launch and landing systems. He’s proud to be a plankowner, and hopes to still be aboard for that first deployment.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Stoecklein said.
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