Dateline: NEWPORT NEWS, VA.
Hollywood would have been hard pressed to come up with a script for a better scene.
There was Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, U.S. Navy director of air warfare, looking very Tom Skerritt-ish – circa “Top Gun” – in the baddest-looking leather flight jacket climbing all over the next-generation aircraft carrier CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford like a kid in a playground as the ship was being groomed for the fleet in Pier 3 next to CVN-65 Enterprise, which was undergoing the Navy’s version of Last Rites.
As reverent as Manazir could be toward the Enterprise and its half-century service to the country, he was equally excited about the prospects of the Ford making its debut later this decade for what the Navy will be start of its 50 years in the fleet.
“It’s the centerpiece of naval aviation,” he says. “As we look to the future, we’re not just revitalizing a program. Yes, we’re paying a 15% premium over Nimitz – but that gives us enhanced capability. We’re not just upgrading a weapon system, we’re upgrading the integrated capability. It’s all about relevancy – what it brings to the nation.”
He eyed the iconic carrier island atop the Ford flight deck. Lacking the rotating radars of previous ships, the CVN-78 instead sported the flat panels of the more powerful and efficient dual-band radar (DBR) suite, giving it a leaner, sleeker look.
And the island was farther astern – providing more “acreage” for flight operations – and the effect was striking. The Ford looked like a different ship.
It will take some getting used to for Navy fliers, too, doing carrier operations.
“You have what they call the ‘parking-lot effect,’” pilot Manazir muses. “It’s like the whole ship is flying by. It’s going to be more intense on this ship for those used to flying off the Nimitz.”
Those flights won’t be for a couple of years. For right now, the bigger concern is preparing the ship for aircraft operations and that means making sure the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (Emals) is aligned and then works properly.
“All main machinery installed -- 90 percent electrically hooked up,” says Lucas Hicks, deck machinery construction superintendent, for the Newport News Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, which is builds Navy carriers.
To help save hardware and costs –- and to make catapult operations more efficient with increased redundancy, the yard and the Navy decided on a different design for the Ford for the equipment “groups” that store energy and power the cats.
“Instead of having four different groups, one dedicated for each catapult, we went to three groups and put a pretty significant switching system in, so that any of three groups can serve any of the four cats,” Lucas explains.
The Navy testing facility in Lakehurst, N.J., has helped prove out the Emals equipment and design.
“We had a lot of collaboration at Lakehurst, which has a full scale cat system,” Lucas says. “But they have only one cat and one energy storage group. We weren’t able to simulate that [the three-group-four-catapult design]. It has been done in the lab in California. That is the only risk we have to retire.”
Manazir acknowledges the risk – but remains optimistic.
“Up in Lakehurst, we’ve been shooting airplanes and sleds for years. But it is a single(-group) system.”
The new redundant switching system must work just right.
“When you’re re on an airplane going off a cat, you don’t want that ‘burp,’” Manazir says. “The only installation in the world for this Emals system is -– with three different storage units supplying any one of the cats -- on this ship itself. The redundancy is going to be tested during the test program on this ship. So far it’s only been tested in the lab.”
He says, “We know all phenomena of single-storage unit with only single storage group with a single cat. Now we have to put it all together. That test program will be very, very, very strict -- to make sure no matter what happens, that the aircraft makes it to safe flying speed and makes it into the air before we have to do something to that cat. It’s one of the biggest hurdles of our testing program. So far, it’s been predictable, it’s been working the way it’s meant to work.”
The Navy and Newport News are doing everything they can to ensure Emals and the other technology improvements work as scripted. As Manazir points out, the nation is paying quite a premium for its new class of carriers with all of its upgrades. The program has enough dissenters with that price tag, even if everything works as advertised.
For the Ford, there can be no more sudden plot shifts.