NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — It was a joyous day for Mike Butler and his enormous crew of shipyard workers who have labored for the past four years to build America’s next super carrier.

The program director for CVN-79, the future aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, donned a hardhat and briefed assembled members of the press on Oct. 29, eager to tout the progress he and his colleagues made.

“Today we’re going to flood the dock, it’s the first time the ship will be in the water since we started construction, since we started in August 2015,” Butler said. “It will take about 10 hours. Dock holds about 160 million gallons of water, so it will take some time to get in here. … And we’re flooding the dock about three months ahead of schedule, so that’s a great accomplishment for our folks.”

Kennedy is about 1,300 tons heavier than the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was at the same point in its life span, and Butler said that’s an indication of Kennedy’s solid progress.

“There was a significant amount of change and improvements in how we built this ship that are helping us build this ship cheaper than we have on CVN-78,” he said, referring to the Ford.

Go underneath the future aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy before it exits dry dock in Newport News, Virginia. The ship is set to be delivered in 2022 and weighs more than 75,000 tons. it hit the water three months ahead of schedule.

For Butler and his workforce at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News, Virginia, shipyard, the Kennedy is a chance to right the ship and demonstrate the yard can learn from its challenges with Ford, even as the first-in-class aircraft carrier has become embroiled in yet another controversy over delays.

The latest flare-up is over Ford’s advanced weapons elevators that has already derailed a promise from Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer to have the ship ready by August. That issue has put the service at loggerheads with members of Congress who are frustrated by the continual delays, and it has Spencer attacking leadership at Newport News, accusing them of hiding the extent of the remaining issues.

But despite the latest problem, which has some calling for Spencer’s resignation, Newport News has been executing on new processes that it thinks will significantly benefit the Navy’s final ships.

“The main thing we did was shift more work earlier in the process,” Butler said. “We moved a lot of work traditionally done on the ship to our final assembly platen, and that moved it to an area more conducive to better efficiency and better cost. We got a lot of that work done earlier than we had done before.

“That allows us to build larger super-lifts and put more outfitting in before we erected them on the ship.”

The new approach at Newport News has been empowered by digital renderings that allow workers to build out spaces with a greater level of detail before piecing together the ship.

The future U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in dry dock on Oct. 29 in Newport News, Va. (David B. Larter/Staff)
The future U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in dry dock on Oct. 29 in Newport News, Va. (David B. Larter/Staff)

“The main difference is with the product model, early on with the 3D-designed product model — without that we could not have moved so much work earlier. For example, with Nimitz class, we had a lot of hole cuts in bulkheads for piping and electrical to pass through. On Nimitz class, most of that was cut on the ship. Here, we cut virtually all those holes in the shop. We mounted a lot of equipment in the shop. We could have never done that without the product model.

“And without the product model, we would have never been able to do the digital work packages and things that we are able to do electronically.”

The next phase for Kennedy is the installation of the crew berthings, galley and other crew spaces, as well as tests of various components ahead of a scheduled delivery in June 2022, Butler said.

Green workforce

One of the major issues facing Newport News has been its relatively inexperienced labor force. Many of the older, most skilled workers are retiring. That, coupled with a reduction in the Navy’s overall shipbuilding needs in past decades, has put pressure on the remaining pool of skilled labor from which shipyards like Newport News can draw.

That’s prompted hiring of new workers and training of a new generation of skilled workers in places such as Connecticut’s General Dynamics Electric Boat and in Hampton Roads, Virginia. However, the delays associated with training new workers who perform tasks more slowly than a more experienced workforce can impact the final cost of a ship, either sticking the Navy with a higher bill or taking a bite out of company profits, depending on how a contract is structured.

“Big picture is that it’s not really a challenge [having a green workforce],” Butler said. “We’ve hired about 8,000 people in the last couple of years. Of course, that means we have to bring them in and train them to be shipbuilders, which takes some time, but there is an advantage to having a new and younger workforce.

(David B. Larter/Staff)
(David B. Larter/Staff)

“Especially as we move to more digital, electronic work packages. The younger workforce is much more adept at that, and it’s working very well.”

Deondre James, 29, is a foreman with more than a decade at Newport News. He leads a team that installs and tests high-voltage electrical equipment on carriers. He told Defense News there are advantages to having a young force.

“I’ve found that the new workforce takes to the laptops and computers a bit better than when I came in 11 years ago with the older guys,” he said, adding that reliance on those technologies has sped the whole process along considerably from when he was coming into the business.

“Pretty much every mechanic has a laptop, and that laptop really cuts down on the amount of time a mechanic has to be away from the job,” James said. “It’s easier to communicate; as a foreman we can communicate via email or chat, so I don’t have to physically be there every step of the way.”

But the lack of experience is a factor, he added. “The challenge is that they are inexperienced, so there is a learning curve every day," he explained. “For the foreman, it’s about getting down on the deck plates and making sure everyone has the opportunity to be put in a position to succeed. With a young workforce, everyone is trying to learn, so I’ve found it’s best to branch tasks off: Give a gut a little bit of experience with one thing, then move onto the next. As people take to it, they expand and they teach the next guy.”

Ford controversy

Even as Newport News progresses well on Kennedy, the shipyard has been mired in controversy involving the ship’s older sister, the Ford, and the ship’s new "Advanced Weapon’s Elevators,” which have caused massive delays and forced Navy Secretary Spencer into dangerous political shoals.

Spencer had promised President Donald Trump that the new elevators, designed by Huntington Ingalls Industries, would be ready to go by the end of the summer, a promise he’s been unable to fulfill. The AWE issues are just the latest in a series of setbacks with new technologies, including aircraft launch and recovery systems that have also caused delays.

Spencer told a group of reporters in late October during a roundtable at the Heritage Foundation that HII gave him bad information on the status of the elevators, which led to the errant promise he said he issued as a rallying cry for the long-delayed carrier.

“Last fall when we were finalizing the plan with HII to get the elevators done, they [said they would have them] tested and certified by July 15,” Spencer explained. “I sat there and said: ‘What’s your confidence level?’ ‘High confidence level.’

“In May of this year, we had a meeting down in Norfolk where Huntington Ingalls says: ‘Uh, elevators aren’t going to be ready until the end of 2020, possibly 2021.’ And that’s when I started wondering: Do they really know what they’re doing down there? That was the point of inflection.”

The Gerald Ford, lead ship of her class, goes back to port in Norfolk, Virginia, after a round of sea trials that the U.S. Navy deemed a success.

The Navy has since taken over the effort to get the elevators functional; four of 11 are certified, with seven of 11 at least somewhat functional.

But while Ford continues to vex the Navy, Spencer said he thinks the organization is learning and making good progress on Kennedy. “We are 3.2 million man hours ahead of where Ford was at this exact same time in its life, so we are about 18 percent curve there,” he said. “The issues with the elevators, it will be walked immediately over to Kennedy and the follow-on carriers. What you’ll see on Kennedy is learning put into action, and you’ll see it out quicker.”

For Butler and Newport News, however, there will be no shortage of opportunities to apply lessons learned from Ford. In January, the Navy announced it inked a massive, nearly $15 billion deal with HII for two new Ford-class carriers.

And as Kennedy floats out of dry dock — its home for four years — the space won’t remain empty for long.

“What’s going in here next?” a reporter asked Butler.

“CVN-80!” he said.