WASHINGTON — Aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush departed a U.S. Navy repair yard Aug. 26 after 30 months of maintenance and will begin sea trials ahead of its reintroduction into the training and deployment cycle.
Bush entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in February 2019 for a drydocking planned incremental availability, or DPIA, that was planned to last 28 months — in part due to the extensive maintenance and modernization the 10-year-old nuclear-powered aircraft carrier needed, and in part due to the shipyard being overburdened with other work on submarines.
Work included complex items such as a complete shaft and propeller overhaul, rudder refurbishment, catwalk and tank preservation, and modernization and upgrades to electronic and combat systems, catapults, and hotel services, according to a Navy news release.
The maintenance availability, which ran two months longer than planned, included about 1.3 million man days of work that was conducted by the Norfolk Naval Shipyard workforce, contractors, teams of experts from around the Navy and the ship’s crew.
“At the beginning of this challenging availability, I shared with the project team this would be a marathon event due to the large work package and the length of time it would take to return George H.W. Bush to the fleet,” project superintendent Jeff Burchett said in the news release. “At that time, we had no idea what we would face with the COVID-19 pandemic and the additional challenges it brought to the team to overcome such a major obstacle on top of the planned work.”
COVID-19 was just one of the challenges Norfolk Naval Shipyard faced over the past two and a half years. When Bush entered the yard in early 2019, the workforce there faced a significant workload: they were working on the last of the East Coast ballistic missile submarine refueling jobs, working on converting a decommissioned submarine into a Moored Training Ship and facing numerous routine submarine maintenance availabilities, and would have to conduct a 2020 maintenance availability on aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman.
With the SSBN refuelings and maintenance and the Moored Training Ship conversion taking priority, attack submarine maintenance was relegated to the bottom of the list, with the Navy sending some to private submarine construction yards Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut.
The aircraft carriers were sandwiched in the middle — Bush was inducted into the yard, but its schedule was slowed by about a year due to the limitations of the yard and its workforce.
The backup at Norfolk Naval Shipyard came at an unfortunate time for the East Coast aircraft carrier fleet, which was already short a couple carriers. New ship Gerald R. Ford was commissioned in 2017 but won’t begin workups for its first deployment until early 2022 because of challenges with new systems on the ship. Bush was in a long-term docked maintenance period. Two ships have been tied up in mid-life refueling work.
That left just two carriers — Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman — to carry the workload on the East Coast. Both IKE and Truman have conducted double-pump deployments, or two full deployments back-to-back in a single maintenance and training cycle, to keep up with joint force demands for aircraft carrier presence around the globe.
After deploying in April 2018 and then again in November 2019, Truman went through a pared-down maintenance period from July 2020 through May. Truman is in training now and will be the next carrier to deploy from the East Coast.
Eisenhower entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard on Aug. 25, the day before Bush left, to begin a 13-month maintenance availability, according to a post on the ship’s Facebook page. The 44-year-old carrier, the second oldest in the fleet, conducted two deployments since its last maintenance availability, including one that broke records when the ship stayed at sea with no port visits for 206 consecutive days as part of COVID-19 mitigation measures throughout 2020.
The return of Bush to the fleet will start a return to normal after the strain on the carrier fleet for the past several years. Bush will begin its pre-deployment workup process following its sea trials and will be the next carrier to deploy from Virginia after Truman.
Ford is in maintenance now at Newport News Shipbuilding following its full-ship shock trials; once that work ends, expected in the spring, it too will go through sea trials and then begin the workup process, bringing the East Coast fleet back to full-strength with four operational aircraft carriers.
It’s unclear what led to the two-month delay in returning Bush to the fleet. Truman’s recent availability at Norfolk Naval Shipyard ran three months longer than planned due to “material challenges” late in the availability that led to “additional growth work, repairs, and ultimately delayed the transition to the test program,” USNI News reported in May.
Still, Norfolk Naval Shipyard implemented several new processes and incorporated new technologies to support the work on Bush and find efficiencies amid the workload at the repair yard.
Laser scanning was used to facilitate installation of sponsons, ensuring the installation was done correctly the first time and eliminating the time and cost of re-work. The yard also conducted the U.S. Navy’s first organic cold spray repairs at any of the four public shipyards to repair components on Bush, according to the news release, and the yard developed unique weight-handling equipment using electric winches for servicing components while in the dry dock.
“The team has been all-in with either fixing or elevating any issues as they occurred, with non-stop execution in mind to ensure USS George H.W. Bush was returned to the Fleet,” Shipyard Commander Capt. Dianna Wolfson said in the news release. “With such an extensive and challenging availability, it took a daily commitment from our team members in delivering technical excellence and skilled craftsmanship on Bush so it could be ready to excel in its mission.”
Bush Commanding Officer Capt. Robert Aguilar said “the end of this maintenance period marks the beginning of our team’s ability to execute our primary mission which is to provide combat capability to Fleet and Joint Force commanders whenever and wherever it is needed.”
“We remain grateful for the teamwork with Norfolk Naval Shipyard to get us back to sea. Now the crew of George Herbert Walker Bush will bring the ship to life and return her to full operational capability,” he added.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.