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9/11 memories and 2020 mission on USS Gerald R. Ford

Capt. J.J. Cummings of USS Gerald R. Ford heads out for a flight (US Navy photo - MC 2nd Class Ryan Seelbach/TNS)
September 11, 2020

Capt. J.J. Cummings, out at sea on USS Gerald R. Ford for this Sept. 11, can’t help thinking of another 9/11 — that awful morning 19 years ago.

He was on leave 19 years ago, about to deploy to the Middle East. Hearing of the first plane to hit the World Trade center, he flipped on the TV and watched as the second plane hit.

“I didn’t know it then, but I watched, live, as two of my friends died,” he said.

One was his roommate from his freshman year at Bates College: Peter Goodrich, an all-American in the shot put who had married his college sweetheart, Rachel, another of Cummings’ classmates.

The second was a squadron-mate from a few years earlier: Brian “Moose” Sweeney, who had called his wife from that doomed flight to leave the message that “I want you to know that I totally love you. Bye, babe, hope I will call you.”

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At sea this 9/11, on a carrier qualification assignment for student naval aviators, Cummings remembered friends and a time from his early days as a naval aviator. He and his squadron were training for close air support missions, operating off the North Carolina coast, working with Marines from Cherry Point.

“We thought we were just checking a box … saying: ‘What are we doing this for, we’ll never need it,’” he said. “But that’s what we were flying for months in Afghanistan after 9/11.”

It’s a lesson about how sailors and aviators never know for sure what they’ll be called upon to do. It’s a lesson that is very much on his mind as another anniversary approached.

“I think about 9/11 all the time. But especially this time of year,” Cummings said later.

From Ford’s bridge, Cummings has been been keeping a careful eye on the student aviators who have spent the past 11 days working hard to earn their wings of gold — the badge that shows they’re qualified to fly from aircraft carriers at sea. He’s been flying himself to make sure flight deck operations are up to snuff.

They are. On Thursday morning, Ford passed a critical milestone: its 4,000th carrier-directed landing.

Cummings was watching carefully, too, as the Ford recently passed another major milestone with completion of its Consolidated Operability Test, which shows his shipmates know what they need to handle and arm live air-launched weapons.

Pausing for a moment a few weeks back as his shipmates continued drilling on moving MK-82 500-pound bombs — before pushing a trolley loaded with bombs himself — Cummings shared a memory from October 2001: how, right next to the yellow nose stripe that shows a bomb is live, he’d written Sweeney’s name on one and Goodrich’s on the other, as they were loaded onto his plane.

In a way, that gets at the heart of Ford’s mission — “putting ordnance on the beach,” as Cummings describes it.

He’s feeling confident Ford can perform.

“We’re getting out of the shipyard mentality and into the deployment one,” he said.

It can be a long road. Newport News Shipbuilding laid the ship’s keel in 2009. Ford was commissioned, and the Navy took delivery, in 2017.

Ford is working through the standard post-delivery testing and training period. Even as it does, Ford is serving as the only ship regularly available on the East Coast to conduct carrier qualification for student naval aviators and for Fleet Replacement Squadron pilots training and qualifying on the specific aircraft they’ve been assigned to fly.

“I want folks to know our ship works, our systems work,” Cummings said. “Our sailors are crushing it.”

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© 2020 the Daily Press