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New carrier boasts better berthing, shorter chow lines

Nov. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Gerald R. Ford was set to be christened Nov. 9. It will be delivered to the Navy in 2016.
The Gerald R. Ford was set to be christened Nov. 9. It will be delivered to the Navy in 2016. (Christopher P. Cavas/Staff)
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130729-N-ZZ999-001 NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (July 29, 2013) The official crest of the future aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). (U.S. Navy photo illustration/Released) (U.S. Navy)

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When complete, the Ford is expected to serve for 50 years. It's likely some future commanding officers have yet to be born. (Christopher P. Cavas/Staff)

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On the surface, the future aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford may not look all that different. But in this case, looks are most definitely deceiving.

“If you look at the ship itself, it’s a Nimitz-class hull and the only thing that might stand out is that the island is about 140 feet farther aft than the Nimitz class,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the man responsible for building the Navy’s aircraft carriers. “It’s a different shape, smaller but taller to accommodate the fixed phased array radar. That’s where the similarities end.”

The first in a new class of carrier cost the Navy about $12.9 billion, and includes a totally new flight deck configuration, outfitted with new technologies in launching and arresting gear.

“Ford will be able to handle every type model series [aircraft] we have today,” said Moore, the program executive officer for carriers. “But moving forward, the ability is there to handle a greater range of aircraft from unmanned aircraft on the lighter end to to the joint strike fighter and the Growler on the heavy end on to the future planes we haven’t even imagined yet.”

More good news: The ship is going to have a smaller crew than its predecessors, allowing for nicer amenities.

The Navy will christen the ship Saturday, though it won’t be delivered to the service until 2016.

It’s been more than 41 years since the Navy launched the Nimitz-class carrier in 1972 and Moore said the Ford class will will carry the next 94.

As she goes in the water for the first time, Moore says she’s farther along towards completion than any carrier in history at this point — and heavier, too. At 77,000 tons, he says Ford is the heaviest carrier ever launched.

“The ship is essentially 100 percent physically constructed, freshly painted with an island onboard and looks like an aircraft carrier,” he said. “She’s about 70 percent complete, total. If you go on the inside of the ship, there’s thousands of workers very busy outfitting the ship itself.”

What remains to be completed is much of the interior. including many of the individual work spaces, mess decks, weapons systems and stores elevators.

Here’s a closer look at some of the most exciting features of the next-generation flattop:

Creature comforts

The Ford’s technological upgrades will reduce maintenance and mean a much smaller crew: as few as 4,500 sailors, counting the air wing.

Life should be considerably better for those sailors, compared to those on Nimitz-class carriers.

“It’s a complete rearrangement of how we feed the crew and of how we berth the crew,” Moore said.

For example, Nimitz-class carriers have berthing areas with as many as 200 people. The Ford class will have much smaller accommodations, with no more than 30 to a room and each will have their own head and shower facilities.

“That’s a big deal because today on a Nimitz-class, some sailors have to put on gym gear and take a towel and pad down the hall back and forth to where the shower is,” he said. “So we think that will be a really big deal from a quality-of-life standpoint.”

While in those berthing areas, he said, sailors will have access to the Internet, on-demand TV and other comforts earlier carrier sailors could only dream of.

Though the later Nimitz-class ships were designed with gyms onboard, the Ford class is the first to incorporate them upfront. Moore said there will be three gyms onboard to help meet the crew’s fitness needs.

The mess decks, too, have been re-designed to cut down on long lines in the ship’s main port and starboard arteries.

Flight deck redesign

The new flight deck design will give the ship 33 percent greater combat power than a Nimitz-class can muster.

“Where a Nimitz-class can give you 120 sorties per day, sustained for 30 days, Ford can get you 160,” Moore said. “That’s really our measure of an aircraft carrier’s combat capability — the sortie rate.”

So how did they up the sorties?

“We really redesigned the flight deck so that from the time you land an aircraft, taxi it over to be refueled and re-armed and then put it back on the catapult, ... we can turn that plane around quicker,” Moore said.

To do this, they got some outside help from a unique source.

“We went to NASCAR and asked them how they managed to turn their cars around so quickly, and we learned some things — time in the pit is wasted time,” he said.

“As a result, the weapons elevators are placed differently and the fueling stations are in the middle of the ship, so the plane captains can get the planes re-armed and refueled quicker, increasing the sortie rate.”

Electric vs. steam

One of the unique features of the Ford — and one that makes it infinitely more adaptable for the future — is most of the ship runs on electricity instead of steam.

“Outside the propulsion plant, we don’t have any steam piping to heat the water and run the catapults, and that significantly cuts down on maintenance costs,” Moore said.

And because most of the ship relies solely on electrical power, the ship was designed to produce 104 megawatts of electrical power on the Ford class — three times greater than the generating power of the Nimitz class.

In terms of catapult, Navy officials say electric gives a constant pull through the catapult, whereas steam can taper at the end. Electrics means a lesser chance of a “cold shot,” or not enough power to get an aircraft airborne.

The real benefit of the electric power will come with advancements in weaponry.

“The Navy has a concerted effort underway for things like lasers and directed energy weapons — I like to say ‘photon torpedoes,’ ” Moore said, making reference to the fictitious weapons on Star Trek’s Enterprise. “It’s not hard to imagine that in 10 to 15 years down the road, as these technologies evolve, all of these new technologies use tremendous amounts of power, that the Ford class is really set up in a way to handle those.”

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