As the fleet grapples with coronavirus, the US Navy's newest aircraft carrier hit a major operational milestone
Off the East Coast this month, the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford, reached several major milestones in a matter of hours, marking the advancement of the carrier's crew and its systems.
The Ford completed flight deck certification and carrier air-traffic control center certification on March 20, after it achieved Precision Approach Landing Systems certification and conducted two days of flight operations.
F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets from four squadrons assigned to Carrier Air Wing 8 conducted 123 daytime launches and landings and 42 nighttime launches and landings aboard the Ford over a two-day period, exceeding the minimum requirements for each by three and two, respectively.
"Our sailors performed at a level that was on par with a forward deployed aircraft carrier, and this was a direct result of the hardcore training and deployment-ready mentality we have pushed every day for the past year," Capt. J. J. Cummings, the Ford's commanding officer, said in a release. "Our team put their game faces on, stepped into the batter's box and smashed line drives out of the park. It was fun to watch."
The certifications, photos of which you can see below, are major achievements not only for the carrier but also for the Navy, as the Ford is now the only only carrier qualification asset — meaning it can conduct carrier qualifications for pilots and other support operations — that will be regularly available on the East Coast this year.
Before flight deck and carrier air-traffic control certification, the Ford did Precision Approach Landing Systems certification. PALS is a requirement for flight operations. along with air-traffic controllers, it aids pilots in night or bad-weather landings and guides them to a good starting position for approaches.
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 1st Class Jawann Murray, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's air department, signals an F/A-18E Super Hornet on Ford's flight deck during flight operations in the Atlantic, March 21, 2020.
The Ford is doing an 18-month post-delivery test and trials period, now in its fifth month.
The carrier finished aircraft compatibility testing at the end of January, successfully launching and landing five kinds of aircraft a total of 211 times.
After that 18-month period, it will likely return to the shipyard for any remaining work that couldn't be done at sea.
The Ford's carrier air-traffic control center team assisted the flight-deck certification and had to complete its own certification in concert with it. CATCC certification was the culmination of a process that started at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Florida last year.
Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Derrick Williams, USS Gerald R. Ford's flight deck leading chief petty officer, goes over flight deck operations inside Ford's flight deck control, prior to flight operations in the Atlantic, March 23, 2020.
Since that process began in October 2019, instructors from the training center have been working with Ford sailors during every phase — testing the sailors' practical knowledge, reviewing their checklists, and observing their recovery operations.
That training was vital to the Ford sailors' success this month. "We had no rust to knock off," said Chief Air Traffic Controller Lavese McCray. "We've tested and trained for so many operations that it made the [certification] scenarios look easy."
F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets assigned to Carrier Air Wing 8 launch from the USS Gerald R. Ford during flight operations in the Atlantic, March 21, 2020.
Inspectors from Naval Air Forces Atlantic praised the carrier air-traffic control center sailors in their certification letter, according to the release.
"It was very apparent the entire CATCC team put forth a great deal of effort preparing for their CATCC certification," the letter said. "All CATCC functional areas were outstanding. Additionally, the leadership and expertise exhibited by the Air Operations Officer and his staff were extremely evident throughout the course of the entire week."
The certification process is meant to test pilots and crews on operations they'll face when deployed. In one recovery scenario, aircraft were stacked behind the Ford in 2-mile increments, waiting to land every minute, which deployment-ready aircraft carriers are required to be able to do. The Ford landed aircraft 55 seconds apart.
F/A-18E and F Super Hornets assigned to Carrier Air Wing 8 stack up in preparation for launch aboard USS Gerald R. Ford during flight operations in the Atlantic, March 21, 2020.
"The human element critical to [flight deck certification] is the relationship between ship's company and the air wing in the 'black top ballet' of flight deck operations," the release said. "During hours-long evolutions, the teams work together to communicate pilots' status, their requirements, and provide them services."
The March 20 certifications came a day after the Ford's 1,000 recovery of a fixed-wing aircraft using its Advanced Arresting Gear on March 19 at 5:13 p.m. Moments later, the ship had its 1,000 launch with its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.
Lt. Scott "Gameday" Gallagher lands an F/A-18E Super Hornet for the 1,000th trap on USS Gerald R. Ford's flight deck during flight operations in the Atlantic, March 19, 2020.
The Ford's first fixed-wing recovery and launch using AAG and EMALS were on July 28, 2017.
AAG and EMALS have been two of the most nettlesome of the Ford's many new technologies, exceeded in their growing pains perhaps only by the Advanced Weapons Elevators, which are still not finished.
The Ford has the first new carrier design since the 1960s, which added to the difficulty of its construction. AAG and EMALS are both meant to support the greater energy requirements of future air wings and operate more safely than similar gear on older Nimitz-class carriers.
The Ford's accomplishments come as the Navy grapples with a fleet-wide challenge in the coronavirus. The service's first case came on March 13, when a sailor on the USS Boxer, in port in San Diego, tested positive. The first underway case came on Tuesday on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Chief Air Traffic Controller Michael Knecht, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's operations department, monitors flight operations and tracks aircraft from Ford's Carrier Air Traffic Control Center.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Tuesday that three cases were detected on the Theodore Roosevelt. He said those were the first cases on a deployed ship and that the affected personnel were awaiting transfer off the carrier.
The "Big Stick," which carries some 5,000 crew, visited Vietnam earlier this month. The Navy's top uniformed officer said Tuesday that it wasn't clear if the cases stemmed from that visit.
"Whenever we have a positive on any ship ... we're doing the forensics on each one of those cases to try and understand what kind of best practices, or the do's and the don'ts, that we can quickly promulgate fleet-wide," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said at the Pentagon.
Asked about specific policy changes, Gilday said, "we're on it" but "no specifics yet."
There are no reported cases on the Ford, which Gilday said Tuesday was also carrying "a couple of hundred shipyard workers" who were "working on many of her systems to continue to keep her at pace and on schedule" for deployment.
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Airman Christopher Nardelli, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's air department, arranges the "ouija board" in Ford's flight deck control, during flight operations in the Atlantic, March 22, 2020.
"We're very proud of the fact that they are out there at sea with us and that they're so committed to the Navy," Gilday said of the shipyard workers.
The Navy has clashed with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls over its work on the Ford.
But the Navy secretary said Tuesday that the service was in touch with industry partners to let them know it was aware of the challenge posed by the coronavirus.
"We rely particularly on our shipyards and our depots ... We need them to continue to operate because you can't lose those skills. We have to keep them maintained. So we've been very clear and very consistent in talking to our commercial partners," Modly said.
"We are also concerned about the health of their people. We don't want them putting them at risk either," Modly added. "But we just need to be aware of what they're doing in that regard, so that we can adjust our expectations about what they can deliver and when they can deliver."
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