The aircraft carrier George Washington is not showing its best side, at least for now.
The flight deck looks like a construction zone. Office trailers and portable tool rooms take up space where fighter jets are supposed to whoosh into the sky. Temporary air conditioning units pump cold air to the lower decks. The beep-beep of work vehicles is a constant refrain.
Capt. Ken Strong’s voice rises above the din.
“I do not like seeing the ship like this,” he says flatly. “It is tough to see it. But it is necessary to take the lifespan out to 50 years. You have to do this.”
The nuclear-powered GW is about 60 percent through a mid-life overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding. It will leave the yard as a modernized and refurbished ship of war. Imagine stripping a car down to the frame, refurbishing the engine and transmission, grinding out the rust spots, adding the latest GPS technology and putting in a sun roof for good measure.
It’s kind of like that, but with nuclear reactors and weapons.
In fact, the new, improved George Washington will accommodate the air wing of the future, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and unmanned aerial vehicles. Given what’s happening around the world, the Navy and the shipyard are operating with a sense of urgency.
In some ways, a mid-life overhaul may be more complicated than building an aircraft carrier from scratch, which also happens at Newport News on a regular basis. It’s a multi-billion-dollar job designed to give the ship another 25 years of life.
It’s technical and complex, but Strong is taking this project personally.
During a short visit Friday, he described how he and the GW have a history.
In September 2014, he reported to the George Washington as its executive officer. At the time, the ship was based at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. He completed two deployment cycles and an “Around The Horn” deployment past the tip of South America to a new homeport in Norfolk.
After leaving for other assignments, he returned in early September to assume command of his old ship, which is now covered in scaffolding. He prefers to remember the old days.
“I can tell you about events that went on around the ship, who lived in what spaces,” he said.
Shipbuilders at Newport News say they want to make Strong’s downtown stay as short and efficient as possible. Those office trailers on the flight deck, for example, allow key people to stay in better locations.
And thanks to some new shipbuilding tools, they’re making further headway.
Laser scans, 3-D printing
The GW, also known as CVN-73, was still based in Japan when Newport News Shipbuilding began planning the mid-life overhaul. It sent employees overseas to inspect specific parts of the ship and note what work must be done. It needed countless of these “ship checks.”
In the past, that involved hundreds of workers with tape measures and cameras. With George Washington, the shipyard employed laser scanning. The device sat on a tripod that provided the shipyard with accurate digital images.
“We were able to do that in a large part on 73, and reduce the number of people we had to send to Japan,” said Chris Miner, Newport News’ vice president, in-service aircraft carrier programs.
At the end of each day, workers sent their laser scans back to Newport News. That kind of data transfer wasn’t possible in the old days, and it helped nip problems in the bud, said Todd West, CVN-73 program director.
“The engineers back here, we’re looking at the data saying, ‘you got everything except for that one corner,’” he said.
The workers would return the next day, get what they missed and move on. Ultimately, the company estimates it saved between $1-$2 million with reduced labor costs and less spending on travel and lodging between Newport News and Japan.
The planning period for the RCOH was 30 months, down from 36 in previous overhauls.
Laser scanning also saved time when the ship arrived in Newport News and shipbuilders began taking it apart. One tedious task involved removing the ship’s metal deck plates and replacing them with plywood, Miner said. In the past, it required workers to measure the plate so someone else could cut a piece of plywood to fit.
“We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of puzzle pieces that go into all these different spaces,” Miner said.
Instead, they laser-scanned the deck plates and gave that data to the workers who cut the plywood.
“The plywood fits like a glove and makes it much, much safer,” he said.
The company has employed 3-D printing to build off-site mock-ups of components or spaces that allow shipbuilders to determine how to maneuver around tight spaces or what tools work best under certain conditions. They built these mock-ups in the past, but 3-D printing allows them to do it faster.
“That sounds like a lot of expense up front,” said Miner, “but for critical work, it saves you money.”
Budget glitches aside …
In 2014, the ship’s future appeared in doubt. The Navy proposed removing it from service rather than proceeding with the RCOH if Congress enacted deep budget cuts. Virginia lawmakers banded together to save the ship and Congress restored the money, although it delayed the refueling.
The ship arrived in Newport News in August 2017 to begin work. The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, received a $2.8 billion contract for the work. That doesn’t include advance planning funds. It is expected to be completed by August 2021.
The ship recently passed a milestone when it was moved to an outfitting berth. The dry dock where it stood was flooded with more than 100 million gallons of water, then tugboats maneuvered it into place.
Now the focus will shift to installation of major components, testing and preparing for the crew to move back on board.
“One of the big, big focuses is to get the ship habitable so the crew can actually come in,” said West. “We’re coining the phrase hotel-ready.”
Meanwhile, Capt. Strong is biding his time. He’s said on the GW as an executive officer, and if all goes well, he’ll commanding it the next time it sees open water.
“That is the plan,” he said. “It is my intense desire to be on board this ship and take her to sea.”
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