Workers swarm over the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Newport News Shipbuilding, Va. Under development for a decade, the carrier is to be delivered to the fleet in early 2016. (Christopher P. Cavas)
NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — This sprawling shipyard that stretches along the James River is abuzz with activity.
Employment in the yard is at a post-Cold War high, with more than 23,000 employees working on carriers and submarines. At one end, the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford is being readied for a christening ceremony on Nov. 9 and subsequent move to a fitting-out pier. Nearby, the carrier Abraham Lincoln sits in drydock under huge shrouds of plastic sheeting, six months into a planned 44-month refueling overhaul. At the other end of the yard sits a forlorn Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, undergoing a lengthy inactivation process that will ultimately see the ship dismantled.
With the arrival last summer of the Enterprise, the entire birth, rebirth and death cycle of an aircraft carrier is on display here for the very first time.
Ford, the first ship of a new class of aircraft carriers, is in the spotlight. The ship’s christening ceremony will be highlighted by the national media over Veterans Day weekend, when Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the 38th president, will formally name the carrier that is now about 68 percent complete.
When the ship is commissioned in 2016, it will introduce a number of new technologies into the fleet, including an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, an aircraft recovery system and a dual-band radar, whose planar arrays are fitted into the sides of the ship’s island superstructure. Parts of all those new systems already have been installed in the ship.
The Ford has been built in an enormous graving dock — the largest such dock in the Western Hemisphere. When it’s floated out after the ceremony, the dock will be emptied and erection of the next carrier, the John F. Kennedy, will begin. Already, subsections of Kennedy have been fabricated and are being stored near the dock. Kennedy is scheduled to be launched in 2019.
Not far from the graving dock is drydock No. 11, where the Nimitz-class carrier Abraham Lincoln resides. Completed by Newport News in 1989, Lincoln returned to the yard in March to begin a refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH), a major renewal process that takes place about midway through a carrier’s planned 50-year lifespan. Not only are the reactors refueled, but nearly every major system in the ship, and hundreds of subsystems, are dismantled to be renewed or replaced.
At the job’s peak, about 4,300 shipyard employees will be working on Lincoln, joined by more than 2,300 members of the ship’s crew.
“The crew is working a lot in the habitability areas, doing SCOOP work,” Capt. Randall Peck, the carrier’s executive officer, said Oct. 22. He referred to the Ship’s Coordinated Offload and Outfitting Plan that details what needs to be done throughout Lincoln.
“They’ve removed 50 percent of the deck tiles, and stripped 26 berthing areas so far,” he said.
The yard finished work on the previous RCOH in late August, when the Theodore Roosevelt was redelivered and returned to service. Already, planners are working on the George Washington RCOH, to begin as Lincoln’s job concludes.
Shipyard employees have worked worldwide on all 10 active carriers in the past year, including assistance for carrier overhauls, repairs and upgrades in California, Washington state and Japan.
The Big E is back in the shipyard where it was born, having been delivered in 1961. Enterprise represents a new work area for Newport News — dismantling a ship.
“Most of what we’re doing here is gaining access to the ship,” explained Dave Long, the shipyard’s program manager for the project. “We’re also defueling all eight of the ship’s nuclear reactors.”
Defueling a reactor, he pointed out, is an area where the shipyard has much experience, having refueled a number of carriers over the years.
And although the ship is systematically being stripped out, Enterprise will retain its unique profile when, in 2016, it is towed around South America to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. There, Enterprise will be completely dismantled and recycled — a status not expected to be achieved until 2019.
For now, Newport News is not interested in entering the scrap business for conventional carriers, Mike Petters, president of shipyard parent company Huntington Ingalls Industries, said in an interview.
“Scrapping a ship and building a ship are two different things. You have to have an infrastructure designed to handle all kinds of exotic materials and situations when you’re scrapping a ship,” Petters said Oct. 22. “We haven’t had any interest in trying to figure out how to take ships apart.”
But the shipyard is expecting to perform a similar strip-and-defueling job on Nimitz starting in 2025, when that carrier is expected to be deactivated.
Near drydock No. 11, Virginia-class submarines are under construction inside large building sheds. Under a teaming arrangement with General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., Newport News shares in the construction of the submarines, and the yards alternate in final assembly.
The Virginia shipyard laid the keel for the John Warner in March, delivered the Minnesota in June, and is building components for at least six more submarines.
But while the submarines are important, it’s the carriers that dominate the yard. And while a debate about whether to reduce the size of the fleet’s 11-ship carrier force continues, it’s likely that whichever way the issue goes, Newport News will play a significant role. ■