As USS George Washington prepares for midlife overhaul, sailors fuel day-to-day operations
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON
As Super Hornets and Growlers pounded the deck dozens of feet above them, sailors sprawled across a dim hallway deep in the underbelly of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, rubbing solvent into the warship’s industrial floor.
Their task seemed simple as the carrier cruised off the North Carolina coast on a recent weekend: strip the old floor and lay down a new, non-slip walkway. But that elbow grease was part of a larger mission: keeping the massive 24-year-old Nimitz-class carrier moving efficiently even as it prepares to spend four years at Newport News Shipbuilding for its midlife refueling and overhaul – known as RCOH – beginning in 2017.
Though that wait may make it seem like the ship is in a holding pattern, it’s anything but. The GW is spending 2016 training the next generation of Navy pilots to land on aircraft carriers.
On this particular weekend, a handful of pilots from two West Coast-based training squadrons were looking to qualify by moving from T-45 Goshawk training jets to the combat fleet. Others were more seasoned pilots transitioning from the F/A-18C Hornet to the F/A-18E Super Hornet, said Capt. Trevor Estes, commander of the Whidbey Island, Wash.-based Electronic Attack Squadron 129.
Part of that qualifying includes 10 daytime arrested landings, or “traps,” and six night landings.
“It’s a huge, huge time in their lives,” Estes said of the pilots. “It’s really a mental fatigue challenge, is what it is.”
Each landing on the 1,092-foot-long deck sends a seismic shudder through the GW. Conversations pause for the initial boom and the following groan of the arresting cable being dragged back across the deck and pulled taut for its next trap.
As pilots qualify, the 3,000-plus sailors aboard the carrier on this two-week mission – set to end later this week – work to keep the GW going even as the shipyard looms.
“We need to keep our sailors’ mindset in the war-fighting mission area because that’s how you keep proficiency levels up and the ship operating safely,” said Lt. Cmdr. Shaina Hogan, who leads the GW’s training department. “We can’t shift to the RCOH mindset yet. It’s about safe operations.”
Meals must be served. Training drills must be completed. The “boat crud” – the illness that seems to pounce whenever a bunch of sailors are brought aboard and confined to tight quarters for any extended period – must be treated.
Floors must be refinished.
“The decks, they take a lot of beating,” said Capt. Timothy Kuehhas, the George Washington’s commanding officer.
The GW arrived in Norfolk, its new homeport, in December as part of a rare three-carrier swap after spending seven years in Japan. It replaced the Theodore Roosevelt, which moved to San Diego, and brought with it a third of its crew while switching out its remaining sailors.
But the GW is not new to Norfolk. It was assigned here after its 1992 commissioning. Fourteen years later, it endured a yearlong, $300 million overhaul at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth during which it received a new mast along with upgrades to its war-fighting capabilities before leaving for Japan.
Kuehhas took command of the ship in January 2015. He said it has faced regular maintenance, and he does not expect surprises during its upcoming overhaul.
“We’re kept up to date throughout the life of the carrier,” he said. “When new equipment comes out for the fleet, we all get it. We don’t wait until RCOH for that.”
Newport News Shipbuilding already is planning for the GW’s refueling and overhaul, spokeswoman Christie Miller said.
Though the shipyard has not yet received a contract for the work, Miller said she expects it to cost around $2 billion.
The yard isn’t the only one looking ahead. Hogan and others also must focus on their sailors’ futures. The years the GW will spend in overhaul can provide time for professional development and schooling, temporary duty assignments aboard other ships and helping with service projects such as painting that help build local ties, the ship’s Command Master Chief James Tocorzic said.
“The Navy doesn’t just go out to sea and do our nation’s bidding when it comes to armed conflict,” Tocorzic said. “We have a lot to provide a community as far as making our community better.”
While the GW’s sailors were going about life as usual, the aviators faced elevated pressure. The Navy has spent about $1 million so far training each pilot, Estes said.
Lt. j.g. Jeremy Willis joined the Lemoore, Calif.-based Strike Fighter Squadron 122 in May and earned his first carrier qualification on the current training mission. He said he was surprised by how much the flight deck pitched while at sea.
Heading into his time on the GW, Willis said he reminded himself that his work in the aircraft is “like riding a bike.”
“It’s just a bigger, faster bike now,” Willis said.