Newport News Shipbuilding has faced numerous technical hurdles in building the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, and that includes its advanced weapons elevators.
The elevators transport ordnance from the lower levels of the ship up to the flight deck. If the elevators don’t work as advertised, fighter jets can’t be equipped fast enough for combat. That means the Ford, the first ship of a new class, won’t live up to its promise of launching more aircraft against enemy positions over time.
So far, only two of the 11 elevators have been certified. That should change soon, shipyard executives said Friday. In the meantime, they are developing a longer-term tool to ensure the elevators work properly on future carriers.
It’s called a digital twin, and it allows shipbuilders to run simulations or test actual equipment in a way that’s not possible on the Ford itself.
It’s sort of a mathematical stress test. Imagine going to a doctor’s office and instead of getting on a treadmill, your doctor runs a simulation of how you’d perform when running up a mountain.
Or imagine wanting to buy a car, but first you put it on a simulator to see how it performs in bad weather or high speeds.
It’s kind of like that, said Charles Southall, Newport News vice president of engineering.
In the case of weapons elevators, the digital twin will allow shipbuilders to simulate how they operate in rough seas, extreme temperatures or other conditions.
It is not a silver bullet that will certify the remaining elevators on the Ford, although it will aid that process. It’s more focused on the entire Ford class of carriers that will be built at Newport News in the years to come.
“We can get ahead of unknown unknowns, if you will,” said Southall.
The digital twin is coming along incrementally, Southall said. Meanwhile, the shipyard said it’s making progress on certifying the remaining nine elevators as post-shakedown work continues on Ford.
A third elevator has completed testing and paperwork has been submitted to the Navy to certify it, said Lucas Hicks, vice president of construction for Ford. A fourth elevator has also completed testing and the Navy will soon get the required papers, he said.
The elevators are powered by an electro-mechanical system much different than elevators on older Nimitz-class ships, which employed a combination of hydraulics, wire rope and electric motors.
One challenge, Hicks said, was integrating equipment from three suppliers into building the new elevators. That process “caused us more challenges than anticipated,” he said.
When it came to assembling the elevators, the new electro-mechanical system “is not quite as forgiving” as older elevators. The shipyard had to go back and examine its procedures and how it prepared its workforce.
“We had to back up some to move forward along the way,” he said.
The Ford has had other troublesome systems. Those include its electromagnetic catapults and advanced arresting gear, the systems used to launch aircraft and safely land them on the flight deck. In both cases, fully operational duplicates were built off site to allow pilots to test those systems.
That never happened with the elevators. Both the Navy and the shipyard didn’t deem it necessary at the time.
“I do believe, in hindsight, we would have done that,” said Hicks, referring to an elevator mock-up. “But we mutually assessed the risk and didn’t recognize it to be worthy of that.”
The Newport News executives also endorsed the Navy’s recent move to bring in outside experts to look at the Ford’s elevators. The experts dusted off previous shipyard initiatives “and put them back on the table” with the Navy, Hicks said.
The experts provided a variety of perspectives. It included representatives from theme parks, which use electromagnetic systems to power rides.
But the comparison to a weapons elevator only goes so far.
“It’s far from a roller-coaster,” Southall said. “Don’t go to Busch Gardens looking for a weapons elevator.”
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