ABOARD THE FUTURE CARRIER GERALD R. FORD, NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The decision to delay sea trials for this supercarrier e aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was a matter of cost versus. calendar, and money won out.
Shipboard tests that cover hundreds of programs are close to 50 percent complete. The beleaguered Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System was successfully tested on bow catapults in June; waist catapults will be tested in November. Dual Band Radar tests have commenced; propulsion plants have completed the non-critical steaming program and are preparing for the critical test program. StillHowever, bumps along the way drove some tests past projected completion dates, typically by a day or two, but the cumulative effect creatinged a workload that could no longer fit in the allotted schedule, especially because many tests are interdependent. Extra manpower money could have made up the difference, but was not an option under the ship’s tight cost cap, said Capt. John Meier, the commanding officer of the yet-to-be-commissioned flattop.
"The priority from the program office is on budget, at cost," he said. "You can drive the schedule down, but you've got to pay a lot of money to do that."
As a result, delivery of the Ford — which was scheduled for March 31 — will be pushed back six to eight weeks. This is the latest in a number of setbacks the first-in-class ship has endured as undeveloped technologies such as the EMALS and Advanced Arresting Gear struggled to keep pace with production schedules. Problems with the arresting gearlatter caused a month-long setback earlier this summer.
Such situations left little wiggle room when it came time to integrate the numerous new technologies in this first-of-class ship. Even systems that are not radically different such as motor controllers, remote valves, and actuators are connected in a new network that uses advanced cabling, connections, and software.
"This presents some challenges — no significant roadblocks, it's just the timeliness issue," Meier told Navy Times. "The pure and simple volume of the technological challenges and change from the Nimitz-class to the Ford has created this bow wave of delay."
While Some analysts have couched this latest delay as a significant setback for the budget-busting carrier. But the skipper sees it in a different light.
"The people who say that have never built a Ford-class aircraft carrier," he said. "It is an unbelievably complicated process."
'A whole new world'
As such, Ford has a steep learning curve. Some procedures worked out in an engineer’s office years ago have not panned out in the real world. As they find the fix, sailors also have to learn the ins and outs of leap-ahead technologies.
"On a legacy catapult, if you have a ‘suspend,’ you know it's going to be within a handful of things," said Cmdr. Ed Plott, Ford’s air boss. "Everybody understands instantaneously what that is and how long it's going to take to fix. For us, we have to work through the problem and then figure out what a specific events it effects. The more that we learn about the system, the better understanding we have, the more effective we will be making those decisions."
Plott calls his khaki leadership "the A-Team," and said they are "legends" within the launch and recovery community. But walk through the department and it is easy to see that all ranks recognize a responsibility to gain and share institutional knowledge, use that knowledge to better the system, then pass that knowledge to those who follow. In fact, many have created their own "A" Schools to capture lessons learned and bring new crew members up to speed.
Launch and recovery is a good example. Life Operations are is much the same on the flight deck, but downstairs it is a different world. On one hand, the end of the steam era means maintenance is not as hot, dirty, or smelly, and doesn't take as many people. That is good news for Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Launch/Recovery) 1st First Class (AW) Jernelle Smith, who has managed shots and traps for 12 years.
"It is easier to manage these catapults than the legacy" ones, she said. "It takes fewer man-hours, which means people will be able to get a lot more sleep. We don't have to stay up all night doing maintenance after being on the flight deck for 12 hours."
But the change also brings challenges.
"With a legacy ship, we already had a path on everything we did. Here, we don't have that," said Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (AW/SW) Christopher Boone, an 18-year vet entering his third year aboard Ford. "Below these decks, things are different. We have to think outside of the box. It is a whole new way of thinking and training, a whole new way of launching and recovering aircraft."
Their counterparts at the aft end have a similar tale. Arresting gear engine room No. 1 looks nothing like what you would find on a Nimitz-class carrier. The arresting gear engine is turbo-electric rather than hydraulic. The water twister, a water turbine braking system, provides 70 percent of the stopping power. The electric motor provides the remaining capacity and uses a generation field to recharge after ever trap. A mechanical brake that works much like the brakes on a car serves as backup. A vast array of sensors enables the system to monitor every detail, down to the speed and payout distance at any moment in a carrier landing. an arrestment.
Only a handful of people have an operational knowledge of this unique system. Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Launching and Recovery) 1st Class (AW) Manuel Cedano is among them. He ticks spouts off data like he built the system himself. He and fellow deckplate leaders have united with system designers to solve many problems that have emerged, and the invaluable lessons learned have been fashioned into an AAG "A" school.
"Don't get rid of everything when you come here," the 11-year vet said. "You have to retain your operational knowledge. If you know the advanced recovery control system in the Nimitz class, you will do well. But AAG is a whole new world."
The ship is preparing to test AAG with tractors (landing a jet on a flattop in the yard is generally frowned upon). The tractors will pull the wires at varying speeds to ensure the system registers appropriate resistance and responds in kind. The tests will also ensure all components communicate correctly. The ship is not scheduled to launch and recover aircraft until 2017.
Even damage control had to form an "A" School to train sailors on the host of new gear such as the rapid patch, which holds 294 pounds per square inchpsi; the new box patch, made of fiberglass instead of cement or metal; and the new face masks that provide a better seal and eliminates the clips known to rip out hair and dig into faces.
Meier pointed to these steps as evidence that the crew is engaged in the challenge of delivering such proactive leadership as proof that his crew is not dissuaded by the challenge to deliver the ship as soon as possible. On the contrary, a quite different problem has emerged.
"The biggest concern the crew has is not the delivery date, but the first deployment," Meier said. "The most popular question I get around here is, 'Can I extend to make the first deployment?'"
There is no question the crew is ready to get their sea legs back under them. About 700 sailors have been on the carrier from the start, and recent delays mean they will miss the first deployment; as enlisted pre-commissioning tours assignments typically run five years.
"Some of those are the foundational sailors that have been here from the very beginning, and we are going to need to capture some of that skill set and extend some of them," Meier said. "We have no shortage of volunteers, we just need to make sure we choose the right people in terms of career progression and skill set. We are working with the bureau of personnel to make that happen."
The air boss is among them. The 1993 Naval Academy grad has already requested to extend into the summer of 2017, "because I believe in what we are doing," he said.
"I want to make sure I have a full understanding so that I can pass on everything we have learned to my relief and turn over a fully functional, fully operational air department," Plott said.