ABOARD THE CARRIER GERALD R. FORD IN THE VIRGINIA CAPES — Capt. J.J. Cummings is literally jumping up and down with excitement.
“Ahhhhhh I love that s---!” he shouts as the roar of an F/A-18 Super Hornet’s twin engines fades into the distance.
The fighter jet’s low flyby a few hundred yards off the port side of the U.S. Navy’s most expensive-ever warship is a loud reminder that the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford isn’t a construction project anymore.
For Cummings, the ship’s Massachusetts-born commanding officer, and for the ship’s crew, Ford is now a living, breathing warship with jets operating from its $13 billion flight deck. “I could watch flybys all day,” the career fighter pilot said Jan. 27 during a visit by Defense News aboard the vessel.
Standing on the deck of the first-in-class Ford, Cummings is showing off the major redesign of the flight deck, which expanded the available space to maneuver and refit fighters to get back in the air.
“This spot right here is what defines the Ford class,” he said, stopping in front of the in-deck refueling stations. “On the Nimitz class, if you want to refuel an aircraft you have to pull a hose across the flight deck and you can’t drive over it so you can’t maneuver aircraft the way you might like.
“Now you just open this hatch, pull the aircraft up and hook up right here.”
The redesigned flight deck, which was developed in consultation with NASCAR pit engineers, gives the Ford an extra half acre of real estate over its predecessors. The extra space is key to the Navy’s newest platform, built from the keel up to maximize how efficiently the ship can generate sorties, as well as be adaptable to new aircraft and weapons systems over time.
But the 23 new technologies incorporated into the Ford, while making the ship a technological marvel, have also been the cause of ongoing controversy as delays and cost overruns marred the program.
Over the coming year, Ford will be underway 11 times over 220 days, working out the kinks, training sailors and writing the book on how the new class of carriers will operate. In the mind of the Cummings, that puts his crew in the history books.
“What the American people should know is that this ship is absolutely amazing, and our crew is even more amazing than that,” Cummings said. “What people should know is that we are, no kidding, pioneers in naval aviation. Every [major] system on this ship is different from Nimitz class, so these people are pioneers. We're writing the book for the Ford class for the rest of history.”
One of the enabling technologies to help them increase sortie generation is the advanced weapons elevators. The system is designed to cut the time it takes to move bombs from lower decks — where they are assembled and tested — to the flight deck for arming the Super Hornets.
Delays with that technology contributed to the downfall of former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer and have been the latest in a long line of headaches caused by new technologies the Navy packed into the Ford.
To date, four of the planned 11 advanced weapons elevators work as advertised. As secretary, Spencer made a public pledge to have the weapons elevators ready by last summer, but now they may not all work until 2021, delays he blamed on shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries.
Ensuring the Ford’s readiness has been a major focus of the acting Navy secretary, Thomas Modly. For Modly, the continued troubles with the Ford are hurting the organization.
"There is nothing worse than having a ship like that, our most expensive asset, being out there as a metaphor for why the Navy can’t do anything right,” Modly said at a December U.S. Naval Institute forum.
'Managing the complexity’
The high-level attention on Ford, which has become a favorite topic of President Donald Trump when he talks about major defense programs, has made the Navy eager to highlight efforts dedicated to preparing the ship for theater operations.
For the crew and officers, many of the headaches come from managing the sheer number of new technologies on the ship, said Cmdr. Mehdi Akacem, the air boss on Ford.
“The biggest challenge is managing the complexity,” Akacem said. “I think there is more technical complexity packed into this ship than the Apollo program. I learn so much every day, I have to constantly refocus on what’s in my lane.
“There are so many new systems. … The challenge is sustaining that focus on one new thing after another. I don’t think there are any five people who understand all the complexity on this ship, all these technical challenges happening in parallel.”
That has made it difficult to develop maintenance and qualification procedures for the crew. However, slowly but surely the crew is figuring it out, Akacem said.
“One of the parts of the overall system that’s still maturing is the maintenance documentation, the technical manuals, parts lists, periodicity of preventive maintenance,” Akacem said.
“One of the neat modifications on the Advanced Arresting Gear, very simple to look at but a huge time saver: We used to have to take the system offline, climb into the Advanced Arresting Gear, climb all around it with a grease gun to go grease the bearings," he added. “Now there is a manifold so the sailor can just walk up with a gun — pump, pump, pump and done. And it saves about 45 minutes out of the grease process. Those are the kinds of things we’ve learned through the post-shakedown availability.”
That’s what the officers and crew of Ford hope to figure out this year: How does this ship work, and what is the best way to man and maintain it? And for sailors, the only way to figure that out is to get the ship underway.
“All good things come from ships at sea,” Akacem said. “We’ve sat around and philosophized about, ‘Well, can we get by with less?’ or ‘Do we need more here?’ Now we’re proving that out."
“With the Advanced Arresting Gear — that’s probably where the steepest learning curve exists for our sailors — we were feeling overwhelmed the first couple days with preventative maintenance, corrective maintenance and a bunch of the technical preparations. But our level of uncertainty has gone down so much in just a couple of weeks,” he added. “Just the confidence growth has been tremendous.”
The learning process has even led to some firsts for the Navy, said Cummings. “We have aviation boatswains mates — typically some our roughest, toughest people up here — and we’re making them be electricians and fiber-optics experts, which is a different theme," the ship’s commanding officer explained.
“So now we’re putting [interior communications specialists] into the air department, which is a first. So now you have your ICs, who are your techie fiber-optics people, with your hardcore, hydraulic fluid-drinking, grease-wearing hard-chargers. It’s a very interesting mix in the air department," he added. “So is the manning right? Absolutely not. We’re still figuring it out. Some of these systems are a little immature, and we’re figuring it out, but it’s going to take time.”
A training challenge
A major hurdles for the crew has been getting sailors trained and qualified to operate, maintain and fix their own gear, Cummings said.
“Self-repair: That’s a challenge” he said. “The ability to get underway, operate and fix our gear ourselves without having to pull in and bring in tech reps out from all over.”
In the absence of new schoolhouses, which are on the way, sailors have relied on shore-based testing sites and simulators from vendors for training, Cummings said.
“It’s a challenge. The infrastructure to train up our sailors — well, it’s coming and we’re working toward that end,” he said. “[There’s] a lot of on-the-job training."
As far as schools, General Atomics will host sailors at Rancho Bernardo, a neighborhood in San Diego, California. From there, the sailors will have access to a simulator to practice catapult launches.
The Navy will also send sailors to the test site for Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System and Advanced Arresting Gear in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
“The schoolhouses are coming, but it’s a challenge. We’re a first-in-class, we get a lot of Nimitz-class stock projected on to our ship, but it doesn’t work for our ship,” Cummings explained.
Another challenge has been rack space. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the Navy is 100 racks short of what it would need to house a full crew and air wing. And while that isn’t an immediate issue for this event, it could prove a problem closer to its first deployment.
But Naval Sea Systems Command said in a statement that the ship has what it needs for its first deployment already.
“The ship’s bunks will be sufficient to meet ship’s crew, air wing, and embarked staff requirements for first deployment, based on overall berthing numbers identified in the manpower estimates for the Gerald R. Ford class,” NAVSEA said in a statement. “For ship’s crew, specifically, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is designed to operate with hundreds fewer Sailors than required on the Nimitz class.”
‘Off and running’
But for all the myriad issues that come from fielding a radically different first-in-class ship, Cummings and his crew are jazzed about how it’s performing. Many of the key technologies, such as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System and the Advanced Arresting Gear have performed remarkably well — a significant improvement over some of the bugs the ship faced when aircraft started landing on and launching from the carrier in 2017.
“I just spoke to some of the first ones to use the flight deck back in 2017 and 2018: exponential improvement in performance,” Cummings said. “For the catapult, we smoothed out many of the software issues and tolerances. We reduced those tolerances to a right number and we’ve had very few issues with the catapults.
“Our Advanced Arresting Gear is performing spectacularly. A couple hiccups here and there, a quick reset: off and running.”
Ford has been using its time at sea to develop wind envelopes for all the aircraft currently flying in the fleet. The process included generating a series of wind conditions, launching and landing an aircraft, and downloading the technical data; then rinse and repeat.
“By the time we pull in at the end of January, every fleet aircraft — C-2, E-2D, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Growler and T-45 (our jet trainer) — will be validated to be given their full envelopes for these aircraft to go on deployment or to train our young aviators,” Cummings said.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will ultimately be integrated into the ship, which is a matter of reconfiguring some spaces to handle classified materials and storing parts, among other things, but the ship will not deploy with the jet at first.
As the ship keeps to a breakneck schedule over the next year, Cummings hopes to rack up a significant number of “cats and traps” (meaning individual catapult launches and recoveries) to get a stronger idea of how the ship will stand up to the crushing operations tempo of a carrier on deployment.
“Our goal is to get about 7,000-8,000 cats and traps to figure out: ‘Hey, what’s going to break?' ” he said. “What parts do we need on order?’ Let’s refine our procedures. So through post-delivery test and trial period, that’s our goal. And with an embarked air wing in the April time frame, we’re going to be able to start getting after that. We’ve got a big year ahead of us."
The Ford is doing about 10-15 traps per day as it works through the data set, and ultimately it should have about 1,000 by the time it pulls back in at the end of January, Cummings said. To get to that 7,000-8,000 goal, the Navy must get its student pilots lots of traps on Ford.
“For the Next year, the only carrier on the East Coast able to provide carrier qualification capability is the Gerald R. Ford,” Cummings said. “When we get our flight deck certified in March, after that we’re going straight into carrier qualifications. So all year, any chance we can: ‘Hey, bring ’em out because we need some time in the batting cage. Hit off the tee and see where we have holes in our swing.’ ”
The post-delivery test and trial period is supposed to last 18 months. After PDT&T, the ship is headed to full-ship shock trials, where live explosives are set off next to the ship to see how the class stands up to shock damage. Navy officials previously testified the entire process could delay the Ford’s deployment by up to a year.
So taking a year to conduct the trials, then fix all the broken crockery: That would allow Ford to enter the 7.5-month carrier predeployment workup cycle in the second half of 2022, and then it would likely be able to deploy by mid-2023.
So, after years of delays, cost overruns and controversy, the ship is finally getting into its groove. And that’s the message Cummings wants to send over the next year of operations.
“This ship is kick-ass,” Cummings said. “I came here a year and a half ago, I heard all the stories, heard from the critics, came here, and they were all wrong in their assumption about our ship. What people should know is that this ship is amazing.”
Navy Times Reporter Courtney Mabeus contributed to this report.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.