Navy leaders on Wednesday hailed the returning USS Gerald R. Ford from several days of at-sea tests, suggesting that the troubled aircraft carrier has finally turned the corner.
The $13 billion warship arrived at Naval Station Norfolk around mid-morning, having completed an array of tests over the last six days. It left Newport News Shipbuilding on Friday after 15 months of post-shakedown repairs and upgrades.
“Such a successful sea trial that we’re seeing them come back one day early,” said Rear Adm. Roy Kelley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic.
The crew and a contingent of shipyard workers ran the nuclear propulsion system at full throttle, did a series of tight turns and tested everything from combat systems to communications.
The sea trials effectively completed its post-shakedown period. Now the Ford enters a new and critical phase: 18 months of more intense trials that will include aircraft taking off and landing on its flight deck.
The Ford has been largely out of public view since it entered the shipyard in July 2018, but Hampton Roads residents should now expect to see it in open water on a regular basis.
During the next 18 months, the Ford will be back and forth quite a bit — one month in Norfolk and one month at sea, said Rear Adm. Jim Downey, program executive officer of carriers.
“It’s (a) jam-packed series of events,” said Downey. “You’ll see the ship in and out.”
Capt. J.J. Cummings, the Ford’s commanding officer, said the last few days have been “a huge moment for our ship. You can see it in the eyes of our sailors.”
Rear Adm. Downey, asked if the Ford Class program has turned the corner, said the line is trending upward.
“It has all of our attention and focus, and we’ve seen some really good performance over the last few months,” he said. “I feel we’ve got the right team on it, and we’re learning from each other as we go.”
Commissioned in 2017, the Ford is the first of a new carrier class that is packed with new technology. Getting those systems to work reliably has proved a challenge, and the latest hurdle is a series of advanced weapons elevators that take ordnance up to the flight deck.
For all of the upgrades — electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear, a redesigned flight deck — if the elevators can’t move bombs and missiles to the flight deck fast enough, the Ford won’t achieve its goal of launching more aircraft into combat.
The ship has 11 elevators. Four have been certified. They were operated 300 times during sea trials. Cummings took reporters on a brief tour of the ship, including an up-close look at an upper weapons elevator, one of the four that are certified. Located just below the flight deck, it worked smoothly in a demonstration for the media.
The Ford’s elevators use an electro-mechanical system that, when working, is 50% faster than the hydraulic elevators aboard Nimitz Class ships and has two times more capacity.
Downey said additional elevators will be certified in the coming months, and all 11 will be finished during the upcoming 18 months of activity.
“We’re going to learn a lot,” he said.
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