7/22/17: President Donald Trump commissions the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) into service
Commissioning the Gerald R. Ford
NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- The Navy's newest aircraft carrier will officially join the fleet Saturday at a commissioning overseen by President Donald Trump.
But it will probably be several years before the Gerald R. Ford will go on its first deployment.
The Ford still must go through various tests and trials of its cutting-edge technology, including new systems to launch and land fighter jets.
Named after the country's 38th president, the ship is the first of the new Ford class of aircraft carrier. It will feature an all new electromagnetic launch system. It's been the subject of some controversy, with President Trump saying it's so advanced it requires "Einstein to figure it out."
But the system is projected to launch up to 240 planes per day, instead of the current 150. That enhanced "sortie" rate could be a game-changer.
"And that's really what it's all about, getting the number of assets overhead, to protect the guy on the ground," said the Ford's commanding officer, Capt. Rick McCormack.
A Government Accountability Office report released this month said the Navy could spend another $780 million preparing the $12.9 billion carrier for battle.
Former Virginia Congressman Bill Whitehurst served with the Ford's namesake in the House of Representatives. Whitehurst said Gerald Ford served the nation well, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and Ford became the 38th president.
"Right man, right time," he said. "We had this terrible scandal. He is a man who came in who had briefly been vice president, but a long career in the House of Representatives. He was minority leader, head of his own party, and therefore, someone who brought to the White House what was needed: Restoration and respect for the presidency. And Gerald Ford did that."
So, what would President Ford think about having a 96,000-ton aircraft carrier named after himself?
"I think that he would be very modest about it," Whitehurst said. "Certainly, he would not think it was deserving. There's no way Gerald Ford would say, 'Gosh, of course they should name an aircraft carrier after me. There's all kinds of presidents they could name it for.' But, I would think he would be very grateful for it and would wish the ship well, and those that would serve on it."
The commissioning of the Gerald R. Ford will be held at Naval Station Norfolk on Saturday, July 22 at 10 a.m. You can watch the commissioning live, here on 13NewsNow.com or on the 13News Now app.
Pride in craftsmanship: Building the Ford
13News Now Steven Graves gives a glimpse at what goes into creating such a state-of-the-art carrier and the story behind the workers who helped build it.
For Nick Sarcone, the Gerald R. Ford is more than a ship. It represents his entire career, so far.
"I pretty much packed up my life when I was 19 years old and moved down here," explained Sarcone. "It's pretty crazy being as young as I am, and seeing all of this stuff come to life."
Now 24, Sarcone finds it hard to believe his accomplishments as a shipyard worker have brought him to a point of service that will impact history.
"I wake up and think, 'I'm going to build freedom!'" Sarcone said.
Sarcone puts catapults in place to launch jets off the flight deck of the state-of-the-art aircraft carrier.
"You know, you're coming here every day to help protect this nation, it really helps and gets you through the day," Sarcone told 13News Now. "It's a humongous responsibility, but it's a challenge that I welcome."
David Batdorf has been stepping up to the challenge for years. The Ford is the ninth carrier on which he's worked. Now Director of Construction, Batdorf has seen everything as he worked his way up the ranks. The position is one he takes to heart.
"It's a legacy, really, to produce something that is so long-lasting and so strong and powerful," said Batdorf. "It's been kind of a full circle of responsibility and growth in my career to be able to lead this excellent team."
The team includes third-generation shipyard worker Ebonique Dixon who is a painter.
"When I got here, it was a rust bucket, honestly, honestly," said Dixon. "It has come a very, very long way."
Day-to-day, the importance of what she does often escapes Dixon. As she discussed it with 13News Now, the significance to American history -- specifically, U.S. Navy history -- was apparent.
"This is an everyday job to me, so you still really don't think about it that way. But it is actually first in its class," Dixon stated. "I'm just excited to go out and watch the first jet take off the flight deck."
Excitement and pride are shared by many people who worked on the Ford. More than an aircraft carrier, it is a symbol of that work and a symbol of patriotism
"It's not, 'Oh, finally that ship's gone,'" offered Batdorf. "It's never like that. The ship never goes away. It's always a part of your life."
Newport News Shipbuilding's impact on the community
Cars zip by the tiny four walls that contain the "Chic-A-Sea" restaurant, but the small exterior contains a giant testament to durability.
"We have fried chicken, we have fish, we have shrimp," described Linda Joyner, the restaurant supervisor
During a visit, her crew of about six people buzzed around the tiny kitchen at the location on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and 44th Street.
Working for the restaurant for 47 of its 50-year history, Joyner has helped make tasty favorites like the "Big Chic" sandwich. Made with a single chicken breast, lettuce and a slice of tomato between buns, it's one her best sellers.
Joyner is not only a cook, but also a supervisor and as such, she worries about paying her close to 40-person staff that spans across three locations in Newport News.
In her estimation, 50 to 60 percent of her customer base is from Newport News Shipbuilding, located less than two miles away from her Chic-A-Sea.
"if the shipyard goes on strike, that affects whether they're going to come spend money," she told us insistently.
Newport News Shipbuilding's economic impact
Even with the completion of the Gerald R. Ford, the shipyard has a steady flow of work, with construction already underway on the next aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy. She told us that employees have gone on strike three times during her time here, which negatively impacted her business.
"For Chic-A-Sea, we had to lay some of the employees off just like they did, because we didn't have the hours to give them."
Chic-A-Sea is one of 8,000 small businesses on the Peninsula, according to Michael Kuhns, the President and CEO of the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
"When you have a concentration of 18 or so percent of retail business -- a lot of service industries, medical, all these kinds of things -- when there is a blip, that really impacts the little guy first", he told us.
It's a number that is much greater than the 20,000 people employed by Newport News Shipbuilding, and it does provide the bedrock for which everything feeds across the Peninsula.
"Those 20,000 people are spending more than would be the case if Newport News Shipbuilding didn't exist here," said Thomas Hall, Associate Professor of Finance and Economic at Luter School of Business.
He has been studying the amount of money that is pulled into the local economy from the shipyard.
"Many other communities don't have that much long-term, sort of funding backlog and stability," he said.
Despite setbacks, retired admirals have faith in Ford
The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford most definitely had its growing pains. At $12.9 billion, it is coming in nearly two years late and $2.4 billion (23 percent) over budget.
And a new GAO report this week said it will cost another $780 million on top of that in the years ahead, to get the vessel combat-ready.
But, as the most sophisticated warship ever imagined, it took time to get it right, supporters say. And they say the Ford will help war fighters do what they need to do, which is to fight and win the wars of tomorrow.
"This thing is going to be magic," said retired Rear Admiral Mike Groothousen. "And it's going to take a while to figure out how to use it."
Groothousen flew jets, and commanded the USS Harry S. Truman. He's excited about this next generation aircraft carrier, and how it will be a game-changer in 21st century combat.
"They're going to find ways to make this thing truly more efficient," he said. "They're talking of being able to generate -- instead of 150 -- 240 sorties in a normal flight day. That in and of itself, is a great move forward in our mobile airport capabilities, and strike capability that we bring to the Navy. So I'm very excited. Do we need it? Boy yes, we need it now."
However, the Ford arrives with some well documented baggage, including its high price tag and later-than-hoped-for delivery.
The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford most definitely had its growing pains. At $12.9 billion, it is coming in nearly two years late and $2.4 billion (23 percent) over budget.
Groothousen blames lawmakers in Congress and a decade of Continuing Resolutions, instead of proper, long-term budgets.
"It would be 10 times easier to build ships of this type if we had a two-year budget or a four-year budget," he said. "And quite frankly, that's what slowed the Ford down a couple of times, with waiting for the next roll of the budget to keep plans going."
Retired Vice Admiral John Mazach was there from the very beginning.
"And the whole thing came down to, we need to be able to generate more sorties," he said. "We need to be able to cut down in the number of folks about the ship, because, folks equals money."
Operations Specialist Petty Officer First Class Kaylea Motsenbocker explains how the new Ford-class carriers have different bedding/dorm areas from older carriers of different classes
Mazach was there in the early 2000's, when the key decisions were made on what the Ford was going to be. He served as commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic. He later worked at Newport News Shipbuilding, where the Ford was designed and constructed.
"At that time, we had a Secretary of Defense by the name of Don Rumsfeld," he said. "It was his second go-round as Secretary of Defense. An he was pretty thorough and pretty focused. And he said, 'If you're going to design a new aircraft carrier, I want it to be transformational.'"
And so it was with the Ford. Different than anything that came before, able to generate a third more sorties, with 25 percent less people.
President Trump was critical of the Ford's electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). He said it's "no-good," and it would take "Albert Einstein to figure it out."
But Mazach has faith in system.
"EMALS is difficult, because it's brand-spanking new," he said. "And you've got to say, 'It's different from steam catapults.' But EMALS has the ability to do what it is we need it to do. And I think that's what's going to happen, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, somebody will have a discussion that says, 'Boy, I'm glad those guys did that.' At least, I hope that's the discussion because, look at what we've done with it since then."
Michigan's native son
As big of a deal as it is in Virginia where the ship was built, the impending commissioning of the Gerald R. Ford might be an even bigger deal in the former president's home sate.
Just about anywhere you go in Grand Raids, you'll see the president's name.
There's the Ford International Airport, the Ford Federal Building, the Ford Field house at the community college and one of the main highways here, the Gerald R. Ford Freeway. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is located in downtown.
The Boy Scout council is also named after Gerald Ford, where a young Jerry became an Eagle scout and got his start in community service that never stopped.
Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, met his wife and married in Grand Rapids, and raised his family here. It's also Gerald and Betty Ford's final resting place.
"They knew they wanted to come back here. It was a special place for them in their hearts and they loved, both of them loved Grand Rapids, and they came back here a lot, post-presidency," said Joe Calvaruso of the Ford Foundation.
"Whether it was the grand opening of a new building or to celebrate his birthday, President Ford never forgot his roots," Calvaruso continued. "President Ford loved Grand Rapids, and Grand Rapids loved President Ford."
Jerry Ford was a star athlete in high school and at the University of Michigan. He got his first taste of politics as a campaign volunteer.
During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy, where he was a decorated lieutenant commander of an aircraft carrier.
Just before Ford's death in 2006, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited the former president at his California home to give him the news that an aircraft carrier would be named after him.
"President Ford was so delighted to have him, and know that was happening. It was just a month later that he passed away, so he knew this was happening and was just so pleased," said Calvaruso.
Ford died on December 26, 2006, and Grand Rapids went into mourning. Flowers, candles, cards, and signs covered the grounds outside his museum.
His casket returned to Grand Rapids and was displayed at the museum for public viewing on January 2, 2007. More than 50,000 people braved the cold to wait in line.
"The people -- all night long -- stretched for blocks, and the family members came over and shook hands. It was all night long," said Calvaruso. "Thousands and thousands of people came to share their respects and be part of this tribute to President Ford."
At his funeral on January 3, dignitaries came to Grand Rapids from all over the country. Rumsfeld spoke at the service, as did Ford's good friend, former President Jimmy Carter, who defeated President Ford in 1976.
Just six months before his death, President Ford asked President Carter for a special favor.
"I was very honored to come here, and give his main eulogy," said Carter.
President Ford has nieces and nephews who live in Grand Rapids, and the Ford children visit every year. Just last week, Susan Ford attended the annual wreath laying at her father's burial site to commemorate what would have been his 104th birthday.
She is anxiously awaiting the commissioning of the Gerald R. Ford.
"The motto of the ship is, 'Integrity at the Helm,' and how appropriate that is, a ship that's helping preserve our freedoms will be out there carrying President Ford's name," she said.
A celebration will also be held at the museum and the community will be able to watch the commissioning live on a Jumbotron. It's another way to honor a man who will always be so important to the people of Grand Rapids.
The future of Newport News Shipbuilding
Before the Gerald F. Ford aircraft carrier was delivered to the Navy, its infancy began straddled by the landmark crane emblazoned with the name "Newport News Shipbuilding" that is known as "Big Blue."
"With the crane, that's someone that's watching as eyes, to pretty much put this puzzle together," said Renee Lewis, who worked as a ship fitter on the Ford.
Lewis started working at the shipyard when construction of the Ford began seven years ago.
"We work in bits and pieces, and although we know it's a boat that's going to happen, pretty much we have to piece it in such a way that everything comes together in synchronization," Lewis described to 13News Now.
While the construction phase of the carrier is overseen by shipyard supervisors, there were regular inspections from Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the ship’s namesake.
Now that the Ford is officially in use at Naval Station Norfolk, work is already underway on the next carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding, the John F. Kennedy.
But unlike the Ford, which was completed in the dry dock of Big Blue, the Kennedy will come together inside a building that is currently under construction at the shipyard.
"The carrier building that we're putting together back there for union outfitting has got three bays of about 120x120. Each of them has a 50-ton crane in it, in order to lift things," described Geoff Hummel, Construction Director of the Kennedy.
Huntington Ingalls, the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding, reports that they also have a contract for the refueling and overhauling of the USS George Washington. They also have a contract for advanced fabrication of the new Enterprise aircraft carrier, as well.
In addition to the building where the carriers will he pieced together, there is also another building on the property where submarines will be pieced together.
“The Navy gives us a 30-year shipbuilding plan. So, we can plan for submarines 10 years from now," said Lucas Hick, who was recently promoted from Director of Facilities to Vice President of Construction for the Kennedy.
He told us that if there were any concerns about how to keep the 20,000 people at the shipyard busy, to consider that there are 12 Virginia-class submarines in various stages of construction at Newport News Shipbuilding.
"The growth here has been ridiculous," Hicks said, who is a fourth generation, 26-year employee of the shipyard.
If growth continues as forecasted, there’s a good chance that the shipyard’s $35 million annual electric bill will increase, because it will be needed for devices that will be used to build the next generation of carriers and submarines.
Instead of paper, the shipyard has increasingly turned to 3-D technology, augmented reality, and laser scanning from planning to the construction of new Navy vessels. And Hicks believes that will open up a new world of opportunities for new types of jobs at the shipyard.
"You have to do what appeals to the new generation, and where their skill-set resides." he said of the manpower of Hampton Roads that is powering the future of the naval fleet.
"It's a sense of pride that you have. A sense that I can point to something and say, 'You know what? I actually worked on it with my hands, and actually help build something that's very important.'"