Overhauling an aircraft carrier: a complex challenge

|By Hugh Lessig

NEWPORT NEWS — When Edward Shields joined the Navy 10 months ago, the recruiter didn’t mention jackhammer duty.

But last week, the young Navy airman stood aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, bending his 6-foot-5-inch frame in a cramped passageway, blasting apart floor tiles and making a great deal of noise while doing it. He is part of a 35-sailor team that has pulverized 372,000 square feet of tile since the Lincoln arrived at Newport News Shipbuilding last March.

These sailors normally work on the carrier flight deck. They launch, recover and refuel jet aircraft, and their jobs are considered among the most exciting and dangerous in the world.

Now they’re in downtown Newport News.

Living the adventure.

“No, he never told me about jackhammer work,” Shields laughed, recalling the recruiter’s pitch. “I never thought I’d be doing this.”

It might not be exciting, but Shields is participating in one of the military’s most complicated fix-up jobs. The Lincoln is at Dry Dock 11 for a Refueling and Complex Overhaul, or RCOH. It happens midway through the 50-year life of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and pulverizing old floor tiles is among thousands of jobs.

A 2002 study from the RAND Institute said a RCOH “may be the most challenging engineering and industrial task undertaken anywhere.”

During its first year at Newport News, a milestone marked on March 28, workers had already reinstalled the long-range radar tower, blasted and primed the ship’s hull below the water line, refurbished 230 of 399 watertight doors and completed port and starboard rudder repairs.

One team is replacing 1,700 beds, or racks. Another works to refurbish 135 toilets, or heads. The catapults that launch jets from the deck will be rebuilt and straightened with laser-like precision. Refueling the nuclear propulsion plant requires building a complex below the main deck that runs half the length of the ship. The giant shafts will be refurbished to mint condition. Workers will modernize 2,300 compartments and install 130,000 feet of pipe.

Before the ship is returned to the Navy in October 2016, Newport News Shipbuilding will log up to 23 million hours and draw on subcontractors from 39 states.

For Hampton Roads, RCOH spells big business.

Budget documents the Navy submitted to Congress in March estimated the cost of the project at $4.47 billion, including $3.64 billion for basic construction and conversion, and about $830 million in other costs, including electronics, nuclear components and other parts provided by the Navy.

Last week, the Navy said the contracts awarded to Newport News Shipbuilding for the project amount to more than $3.3 billion.

The overhaul is roughly 42 percent complete and the shipyard’s labor commitment equates to about 5,000 people. They’re working alongside 2,500 Lincoln sailors. Most of them, like Shields, are doing jobs far out of their comfort zone.

But it’s not all work. On Friday afternoons, the crew jams the athletic field behind Huntington Hall for group workouts. Sailors have become highly visible on community relations projects, planting trees at Hampton City Hall, mentoring at An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News and volunteering at the Peninsula Food Bank.

Last week, the Newport News Fire Department credited two Lincoln sailors with rescuing an elderly woman from her burning home.

Work in progress

How big is this job? Over the 50-year life of an aircraft carrier, 35 percent of its total maintenance happens during this three and a half years, said Bruce Easterson, the Newport News Shipbuilding program director for the Lincoln overhaul.

The contract is structured to finish the ship as soon as possible. The Navy and shipyard share savings if the ship is delivered under cost.

“If I go over,” Easterson said, “there’s a sharing of that overrun, but at some point, it’s all on the shipyard.”

With that kind of workload, it is important to hit the ground running. But the Lincoln job faced an obstacle from the get-go — federal budget uncertainty delayed its arrival at the shipyard by one month, forcing Newport News and the Navy to improvise.

“We actually worked well with the Navy,” Easterson said. “We restructured our contract and scope and committed to keep working.”

He has nothing but praise for the Lincoln’s officers and crews. They came to the shipyard looking for things to do, and “head and shoulders, they have set a higher standard for the following ships,” he said.

For example, the crew has committed to standing 200,000 man-hours of fire watches, required whenever welding or burning is going on. A shipyard employee would normally do this, but sailors have been worked into the schedule, standing by with fire extinguishers while work proceeds.

“Frankly, it’s not easy to sit there and watch somebody weld for hours, right?” Easterson said. “It’s not the most glamorous job.”

But it frees up shipyard workers to do other work. That pays dividends, Easterson said, because ripping out the guts of a 25-year-old aircraft carrier is like lifting the hood of an old car. You find a few surprises, and the job gets a little bigger.

“The Navy will say, ‘Open a tank’ and we say, ‘This is what we see.’ And they have to manage and implement that change,” Easterson said

Sometimes, the discoveries raise eyebrows.

Chief Petty Officer Terrence Parks oversees the team that refurbishes berthing compartments, installing new racks and lockers.

“We find some interesting things when we’re tearing apart berthing,” he said. “When you get down to the sub-base, you’ll find things like jewelry. You’ll find pictures, you’ll find movies, you’ll find money.”

Parks came late to the team. He’s personally found five bucks in change, which he gave up, since he was new.

“Sometimes we’ll find things of a personal nature — let’s put it that way,” he said. “Not too much, but every once in a while, like a picture that was meant for one person only.”

Leadership challenge

With thousands of sailors working in small groups throughout the ship, the Lincoln’s top officers must pay attention to the psychological as well as the technical.

“One of the dangers here is that if you’re broken up into a production management team and you go break decks for eight hours, and that’s all you know and all you do, it’s pretty narrow,” said Capt. Randy Peck, the ship’s executive officer.

That’s one reason the ship stresses group workouts and community projects.

“It gets them out of the ship. They’re doing something productive. They’re working as a team,” he said. “It gives people perspective, so when they come back to the job, they’re fresh.”

Like Shields and his jackhammer duty, Lincoln sailors said they accept the work as part of what allows the Navy to keep carriers in the water. Petty Officer 3rd Class David Montero, another jackhammerer, said breaking up floor tiles is a great stress reliever if nothing else. He deployed on the Lincoln before it came to the shipyard, so he’s adjusted from the overseas environment to the shipyard environment.

“For me, it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Here, every place has a deadline you have to complete. It’s a little bit of hard work, but at the end of the day, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Seaman Brittinie Bryce works in berthing. Unlike Montero, she came directly to the Lincoln from initial training.

“It’s definitely different,” she said. “But this shows what the Navy is really all about.”

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