USS Ford: A new class of warship

By William H. Noack

The Next Big Thing fills dry dock No. 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding, awaiting the crack of the champagne bottle and a future of 50 years at sea.

The USS Gerald R. Ford is more than just another aircraft carrier. It represents the lead ship in a new class of supercarriers, replacing the older Nimitz class and breaking new ground in overall efficiency, reduced maintenance and lower costs to its customer, the Navy.

Christening of the Ford is scheduled for Saturday, with the 38th president’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, doing the honors. Bales has stayed close to the ship’s construction since it was officially named for her father six years ago.

The naming was appropriate since Gerald Ford was familiar with life on a carrier. Ford had enlisted in the Navy in 1942 during World War II and was soon assigned to the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey. He served the ship as assistant navigator and antiaircraft battery officer when the Monterey was involved in numerous actions in the Pacific theater, including strikes against the Marianas and Wake Island.

This Ford, however, is light-years beyond its predecessors in every way. And even workers among the 5,000 at Newport News who have been building the carrier frequently stumble to find the words to accurately describe the capabilities and sheer enormity of the ship.

In a nutshell, the Ford is a fully digital, nuclear-powered military force of jaw-dropping proportions. It stands 25 stories high and weighs 90,000 tons, the equivalent of 400 Statues of Liberty. Eventually, it will be covered with 200,000 gallons of paint, enough to cover the White House 350 times.

The new ship has reduced maintenance requirements by 30 percent, has increased electrical capacity by 250 percent, yet operates with a smaller crew. It can go 12 years before returning for dry dock maintenance.

Important to the Navy, of course, is the Ford’s much improved flow of weapons. The new ship can handle some 220 takeoffs and landings a day from its increased flight deck space. That’s roughly 25 percent more than a Nimitz-class carrier. More space also means better access for aircraft maintenance.

This improved launching capability is made possible by the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, which replaces the traditional steam-powered launch systems found on earlier carriers. This system is safer, more flexible and reliable and requires less maintenance and crew. Electromagnetics is also used to slow and stop landing aircraft.

All these improvements – from better technology to greater efficiency and lower maintenance costs – add up to a reported $4 billion in savings to the Navy over the ship’s estimated 50-year life when compared to earlier carriers. Total cost of the ship has been pegged at $13 billion.

Construction of the Ford began in 2005 and its keel was ceremoniously laid on Nov. 14, 2009. In a speech that morning to assembled shipbuilders and Department of Defense officials, Susan Ford Bales spoke of her father’s honesty and integrity and his pride in knowing his name would be associated with the nation’s newest warship. (Ford was told the ship would be named for him just a few weeks before his death in 2006.)

Even with christening ceremonies scheduled for next month, the Ford will remain at Newport News for further construction, testing and tweaking until a scheduled commissioning in 2016. Thus, the ship will have been a full 11 years in the making.

That may seem like a long time to some, but the Navy knows what the wait will produce: a sea-going city of more than 4,000 inhabitants supporting a new generation of unprecedented naval aviation power.

This summer, a time capsule was welded into a small room on the carrier, just above the floor. This is one long-held Navy tradition among many. Bales had selected some items for the capsule, including a piece of sandstone from the White House, some Navy coins and possibly some of the combat medals her father was awarded in the war.

They will be onboard when the big ship powers its way out onto waters now unknown.

William H. Noack is a retired auto industry executive who grew up in Michigan when Gerald Ford represented Grand Rapids in Congress. He lives in Annapolis and writes about transportation and military issues.

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