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Ready or not, Presidents Bush 41 and 43 will gather in Norfolk, Va., early in the new year to commission 41's namesake aircraft carrier, even though the ship won't be quite ready for delivery.
Construction delays mean the future George H. W. Bush won't be able to carry out sea trials and be accepted by the Navy before the Jan. 10 commissioning — the normal sequence of events for a new ship, the Navy and shipbuilder Northrop Grumman said Thursday in separate statements.
Legal custody of a new ship is transferred from the shipbuilder to the Navy when the service accepts delivery of the vessel. Commissioning ceremonies for Navy ships, by contrast, have evolved into more ceremonial and social events, where the ship's crew and sponsor can celebrate the occasion.
In the case of the new aircraft carrier, the occasion is even more unusual, since the namesake is still alive. Naming a new Navy ship after a living person remains a rare thing, although in recent years the practice has become somewhat more common.
The Navy set the Jan. 10 date earlier this year to ensure that President George W. Bush would be able to attend while he was still the commander-in-chief. Bush will turn over the reins of government Jan. 20 to President-elect Barack Obama.
"The community and stakeholders involved in the CVN 77 commissioning have spent considerable effort planning for the January 2009 date," the Navy said in an explanatory statement.
Now, the carrier — rated at 97 percent complete — will be towed across Hampton Roads on Monday from Northrop's Newport News shipyard to the naval operating base on the south side of the roads, where the commissioning ceremony will take place. Work will continue on the ship, and Northrop and the Navy hope to conduct sea trials later in January.
"The Navy will work with the contractor to complete more work up to the commissioning date and up to the start of trials," the Navy said in its statement. "What remains to be finished are items such as painting and labeling of spaces, testing items that required sea operations, such as high speed runs, steering checks, and integrated combat systems testing and spaces."
Northrop provided a bit more detail.
"It is a team effort to deliver a ship," said spokesperson Margaret Mitchell-Jones. "The shipbuilder and the Navy have been working closely together to determine the right time to take this ship to sea and the ensuing time to deliver the ship. Establishing the right material conditions — of systems, spaces, testing and turn-over to the crew — has put us in the position where we have just ‘run out of days' on the calendar to accomplish this effort before the commissioning ceremony."
The holiday season and the desire for many employees to take time off also was a factor in accepting the delay, Mitchell-Jones said.
Although the ship will be late, the delay is relatively minor given the long construction time for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — the world's largest warships. Construction of the ship began in March 2001, and in October 2005 the estimated delivery date was Nov. 11, 2008.
Commissioning a ship before delivery, while rare, has happened before, the service said in its statement.
"The Navy has commissioned ships prior to delivery on at least 15 occasions. The most recent ship commissioned prior to delivery was USS Chicago (SSN 721) in September 1986."
The submarine Chicago also was built at Newport News, and was delivered 12 days after its Sept. 27, 1986, commissioning.
"There is no law requiring delivery prior to commissioning," said the Navy. "That said, there are Navy policies that establish a timeline of events leading to commissioning, including sea trials. The Secretary of the Navy expects to waive the timeline of events. The waiver will not affect delivery of the ship, and the technical and safety requirements remain in full force and effect."
The technical status of the carrier on Jan. 10 will become "In Commission, Special," according to the Navy. After sea trials and acceptance by the service, the status will shift to "In Commission, Full."
The George H. W. Bush is the 10th and last ship of the Nimitz-class carriers the Navy has been building since 1967. All of the carriers have been built at Newport News. The next carrier, the future Gerald R. Ford, already is under construction at the Virginia shipyard.
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