Traditional christening takes place against the backdrop of a modernizing Newport News shipyard
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: December 5, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Newport News Shipbuilding hasn’t christened an aircraft carrier in six years, and the skyline along the 550-acre waterfront has changed a lot since then.
A multi-story complex now fills the the north end of the yard. Called the Joint Manufacturing Assembly Facility, or JMAF, it represents the future of submarine construction. Photographs of the site and its custom-built components are restricted.
Nearby, the 315-metric-ton crane Goliath rises high in the sky. Erected last summer, it recently went into service and its 241-foot height eclipses the iconic “Big Blue” crane that passers-by have seen for years.
Shipyard employment now exceeds 24,000 after a hiring upsurge last year. The company is still bringing on 300 production workers a month, and a recent hiring fair attracted 1,000 job-seekers.
Stepped-up production of aircraft carriers and submarines is the horizon.
But as shipbuilders prepare for a challenging future, they will pause Saturday to observe the military pomp and age-old tradition that will accompany the christening of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.
The ceremony will recall the brief but notable tenure of the nation’s 35th president. Dozens of retired sailors will represent the crew of the previous John F. Kennedy, which began sailing during the Vietnam War. It was the Navy’s last non-nuclear carrier, decommissioned in 2007.
Caroline Kennedy, who christened that ship as a child, will reprise her role as sponsor of the new Kennedy, the second carrier of the Gerald R. Ford class. She’ll smash a bottle of American sparkling wine against the ship’s hull, just as she did for the old Kennedy on May 27, 1967.
But after the crowd leaves and the chairs are put away, the men and women of Newport News Shipbuilding will get back to work.
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the only yard capable of making nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy. It is one of two yards that makes nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines. The other is General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut.
The future is busy on both fronts.
The yard has a signed contract from the Navy for two aircraft carriers, the first time that’s happened since the defense buildup during the Reagan administration. It is also assisting Electric Boat in building a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the Columbia class. These mammoth boats, part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, will be about as long as the Washington Monument is tall.
And earlier this week, the Navy awarded a record $22.2 billion contract for the next block purchase of Virginia-class submarines, the Navy’s largest single shipbuilding contract ever.
Matt Needy, vice president of operations, said Newport News has steadily invested in capital improvements over the last decade.
Shipyard President Jennifer Boykin, in discussing the submarine contract earlier this week, said HII has spent more than $1 billion in capital improvements across all of its operation, about two-thirds of that in Newport News.
One new component inside the JMAF inspires comparisons to the Terminator robot of Hollywood fame — in a good way, one official points out — because of how it moves.
The company’s roots in Hampton Roads go back more than 130 years, when railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington built a shipyard along the James River. Its first delivered ship was the tugboat Dorothy.
Company leaders value their history, but they are looking to the future.
“This is not your grandfather’s shipyard,” Needy said.
The JMAF is a case in point. It features automated equipment, heavy weight cranes and buildings with large transportation doors. The centerpieces of the operation are giant fixtures that are changing how Newport News builds submarines.
To understand what goes on inside this building, it helps to know a few basics about sub construction.
Newport News builds submarines in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat. The teaming arrangement is unique in U.S. military shipbuilding: Each yard builds pieces of each sub, then they take turns in final assembly and delivery to the Navy.
Newport News builds the front and back sections — the bow and stern — plus the habitability module, the top “sail” and other components.
Inside the JMAF, the bow of a submarine is currently taking shape inside a giant fixture. Imagine if workers erected elaborate scaffolding to enclose the pointy-ended bow. In this case, the “scaffolding” is permanent, adjustable and high tech, with machines that control welding under the watchful eyes of shipbuilders.
At some point during construction, the entire multi-story fixture rises up, as mechanical legs inside columns push it higher into the air. (The legs that ratchet up are what invites comparison to the Terminator.) Then then entire fixture turns upside-down and resettles itself, allowing work to continue.
“The whole thing flips,” said Bill Boze, facilities program manager.
Newport News is deep into production of Virginia-class attack submarines, which are in high demand by Navy commanders. It has begun work on the Columbia-class sub program, also in partnership with Electric Boat.
Columbia-class subs are much larger — 560 feet long — and carry nuclear missiles.
The fixtures can be adjusted to for either Virginia or Columbia class boats.
“Every time we flip, we save a tremendous amount of time,” said Boze, “because we’re not breaking staging, ventilation, power and everything else.”
The JMAF has low-tech improvements, too. Break rooms and other work spaces are arranged so shipbuilders don’t have to walk to other parts of the shipyard. A separate assembly allows them to work on other components indoors, out of bad weather.
“Even though Collis P. Huntington picked this location because we could bang steel outdoors, it still works better indoors,” Boze said.
Once completed and sailing in the water, submarines and aircraft carriers don’t have a whole lot in common besides nuclear power. But improving construction processes can benefit both programs, Needy said.
“If you’re welding a certain type of weld, there’s a way (to do that) and it should be independent of whether you’re welding on a carrier or a submarine,” he said.
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