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Sailors with experience as riggers help jump-start the USS Stennis’ overhaul

U.S. Navy Fire Controlman 3rd Class Jordan Olvera removes dead end cables aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), in Norfolk, Va., on March 30, 2021.

CURTIS BURDICK/U.S. NAVY

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: April 7, 2021

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — When a couple of sailors with some training as riggers transferred to the USS John C. Stennis, the carrier’s leaders saw another way to speed work on its upcoming refueling and overhaul.

With those sailors as the core of a new team trained in the art of arranging hoists and cranes to safely move heavy machinery, the Stennis now has an in-house group ready to help out when shipyard riggers’ to-do list starts growing too long.

Carriers don’t usually have riggers, but the Stennis’s new idea is already working, says Capt. Cassidy Norman.

Stennis riggers just moved a heavy angle bracket from one of the carrier’s lower decks to the flight deck so a crane could shift it to a barge and send to another Navy ship that needed the part.

Handling smaller rigging challenges means not having to slow down the shipyard riggers when they have to remove and install the many multi-ton pieces of equipment needed for the refueling and overhaul. Moving the angle bracket meant the Stennis didn’t need to distract a crew of Newport News riggers as they recently wrestled a couple of 12-ton, 12-foot long turbines up and out of the carrier.

“I think we’re farther along than any carrier has been before, preparing for an RCOH [refueling and complex overhaul],” Norman said.

That’s the 51-month, $2.9 billion project set to start later this spring when five tugs nudge the 1,092-foot long Stennis from its berth at Naval Station Norfolk to Dry Dock 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Preparations started years ago. Newport News Shipbuilding engineers started listing the Stennis’ needs when it was still at its old home port in Washington, before its 2018 deployment in the Middle East and transfer to Norfolk.

At the same time, the Stennis’s sailors stepped up their maintenance work with a series of “ship checks,” making their own lists of work that needed to be done — and found some surprises.

“Berthing areas and heads — bathrooms to you, I guess — were in better shape than usual and didn’t need the kind of complete overhaul we usually see; over the years, sailors took good care of them,” Norman said.

That meant that rehabbing those compartments was work the crew could take on before heading into Newport News, rather than adding it to the list of things to be done in the shipyard.

With the new LED lighting and USB outlets for changing phones and laptops that the Stennis sailors installed during the rehab, Norman believes the crew made life aboard a lot more up-to-date.

The Stennis’s chief engineer, Capt. Robert Williams, estimates the carrier’s crew will put in some 2 million man hours of work during the refueling and overhaul, or roughly a third of the repairs, removal and replacement of equipment needed.

The overhaul doubles the useful life of a nuclear aircraft carrier, he said.

“It’s a gift of 25 more years of service,” he said.

Getting more work done before the Stennis goes into the shipyard means more time and flexibility for one of the bigger challenges of a multi-year overhaul: keeping sailors’ skills sharp, said Norman.

Although the preparations already completed mean the Stennis’s propellers can no longer spin and its rudder can’t turn, sailors are regularly spending time at sea. Currently, Stennis sailors are working on 15 other vessels.

“We can send sailors when other ships need a hand ... and our sailors can get a chance to be at sea so they can have that experience,” Norman said.

Some of Stennis’s ordnance experts deployed for a month with the Royal Navy’s new carrier, the Queen Elizabeth.

Great Britain decommissioned its last carrier in 2014 and hadn’t operated fixed wing aircraft from a carrier since 2011, “so it was a chance to help them refresh,” said Lt. Michael Brown, the Stennis’ aviation ordnance officer.

“It was a chance for us to keep our knowledge fresh, too,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Cannon, lead petty officer for Stennis’ G-3 division.

Along with a Marine Corps F-35 fighter squadron and the destroyer USS The Sullivans, the weapons division sailors will head back to the Queen Elizabeth later this spring, on its first deployment, to the Indian Ocean — marking Britain’s return to the “East of Suez” operations suspended in 1968. The frigate HNLMS Evertsen of the Royal Netherlands Navy will be with the Queen Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, the Stennis is also providing support for the Italian carrier ITS Cavour during its stay in Norfolk, as it continues preparing to handle the F-35s that Italy is acquiring.

“They’re in a COVID bubble, so they can’t get off the ship,” Norman said. The Stennis is handling all pier-side operations — the electricity, water and other utilities connections, security, waste handling and deliveries — including runs to the Navy Exchange for the souvenirs and other goodies the Italian sailors are ordering there.

The Stennis has a team of sailors on call to help at the mass vaccination sites the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense are setting up around the country.

Having the flexibility to help, whether at a vaccination center or on an allied navy’s ship like the Queen Elizabeth or the Cavour, is one benefit of being ahead of schedule preparing for the overhaul, Norman said.

It makes it easier to program the training that Stennis’s sailors will need during the carrier’s years in the shipyard.

Norman said it will also help keep Stennis’s overhaul on track once it is in the yard, as shipyard workers scramble to complete the USS George Washington’s overhaul so it can return to duty. This fall, they’re scheduled for the final checkup for USS Gerald R. Ford.

“There’ll be challenges, but working with our partners at the shipyard, we’re going to deliver the Stennis back to the American people on time,” Norman said.

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