Crews to start unprecedented 3-carrier swap this summer

By Lance M. Bacon, Staff writer

There are plenty of plank owners, shellbacks, and old salts who have been part of a historic world cruise or war deployment. But only 1,407 sailors will have the bragging rights for serving aboard three flattops in one year.

Dubbed the “Three Presidents Crew,” the team will start on the Ronald Reagan, transfer to the George Washington, and end up on the Theodore Roosevelt.

In all, roughly 9,000 sailors will be part of the unprecedented three-carrier swap. When the dust settles, each flattop will have a new home port on a different coast or in a different country. Through some creative crew swaps, more than half of the sailors will end up back at their original homeport — saving families from relocating and the Navy money.

The historic carrier swap kicked off in March when the carrier Theodore Roosevelt bid Virginia farewell after 28 years. The “Big Stick” is operating in 5th Fleet and afterward will head east through 7th Fleet on its way to California. It will reach its new home — Naval Base Coronado, California — after an eight-month world cruise. Then roughly half the TR crew will head to Norfolk to man the George Washington, once it begins its mid-life refueling there.

The GW, now in the Timor Sea for Talisman Sabre 2015, left Japan on its last patrol in May as the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, a position it’s held seven years. That 23-year-old carrier is headed back to Virginia for its mid-life overhaul. On its way this summer, it will swap crews with the Ronald Reagan in San Diego.

By the latest count, 1,666 GW crewmembers are scheduled to cross deck to the Reagan, which will take GW’s place as the forward-deployed flattop.

And then there’s the “Three Presidents Crew,” which will serve aboard all three carriers. That crew is on the Reagan in San Diego and will transfer to the GW and sail around South America to Newport News, Viginia. Once they arrive, that crew will fly back to San Diego and become part of the TR crew.

Getting ready

While hull swaps are not uncommon, they are not always uneventful. A notable example is the crew of cruiser Antietam, which found Cowpens in disrepair when they took over in 2013. Furthermore, the crew’s certifications were earned on a modernized cruiser; Cowpens lacked Antietam’s engineering upgrades and had an older version of Aegis with which the crew was unfamiliar.

Such errors will not take place this time, said Command Master Chief Franklin “Spike” Call, the top enlisted on the Reagan. The transition plan is eight months in the making and includes input from “every department head and chief,” Call said. Crews are studying ships’ plans to coordinate strategies and overcome differences, and a handful of engineers are cross-decking ahead of time to help with the transition.

“They are the same class of ships, but built decades apart,” Call said. Therefore, each carrier will conduct a tailored training period following the swap to enable each crew to familiarize itself with the ship’s unique features. When Reagan and GW begin their 10-day turnover in August, the Three Presidents Crew will go into a training lockdown — what Call likens to a mini-workup “to make sure we have everything down we need to get down as far as engineering, navigation, firefighting systems, all that stuff.”

Some reactor personnel will remain with their ships once underway; the skippers and executive officers will stay with the hulls while the command master chiefs will remain with the crews.

While the Navy’s goal is to keep the majority of the personnel in the same geographic area to support geographic stability and reduce costs for permanent change of station orders, sailors were asked for their preference, said Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, spokeswoman for Naval Air Forces. Some chose to change. For example, roughly 800 members of the TR’s crew will remain with the ship when it arrives in San Diego. Crew slots that remain will be filled through regular assignments.

The switch is needed to keep a six-carrier presence in the Pacific, according to Pentagon officials. The GW is scheduled to be in the yard from 2017 to 2021. The TR completed its refueling complex overhaul in 2013, and Reagan is more than a decade away from its mid-life refueling.

Carrier crews are not the only ones to benefit from the historic three-hull swap. The cruiser Normandy is one of four ships that deployed with the TR, but Normandy will join the carrier on the world cruise, and then transit the Panama Canal on its return to Norfolk.

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