By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua D. Sheppard
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 15, 2017) – Each time that the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) heads to sea, it leaves a trail of milestones and “firsts” in its wake. Ford’s most recent two-week underway period saw that trend continue, as the ship continued test and evaluation operations.
This underway period saw the accomplishment of three planned milestones: rotary wing wind envelope testing, flight deck fuel certification, and replenishment at-sea lineup testing. Each of these tests provided important information to guide the design of future carriers as well as an opportunity for Ford’s crew to put into action everything that they have been training to do during the ship’s construction and sea trials.
One of the primary goals of this underway was wind envelope testing for rotary wing fight operations.
“The purpose of the tests was to verify and try to expand the helicopter wind envelopes on Ford-class carriers,” said Cmdr. Thomas Plott, Ford’s Air Boss. “This allows us to safely launch and recover helicopters in a variety of diverse conditions.”
Ford conducted its most extensive flight operations to date this underway. To help facilitate that workload, Ford’s air department was able to certify the ship’s flight deck capable of delivering aviation fuel.
“This fuel certification [is] the culmination of years of hard work and determination from hundreds of Sailors and civilian contractors,” said Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) Joshua Faulds, Ford’s V-4 division leading chief petty officer. “To watch the system come to life over the past year has been a truly unique experience, and one of which I will never forget. The lessons learned from our certification will strengthen the foundation of knowledge for all future Ford-class aircraft carriers.”
Being able to fuel aircraft and conduct flight operations are only a small part of sustaining the United States’ ability to project power around the globe. Nuclear power gives an aircraft carrier the ability to operate without refueling for a quarter of a century, but an aircraft carrier must be able to take on fuel and provisions while at sea.
To that end, Ford successfully performed two replenishment at-sea approaches alongside the dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS William McClean (T-AKE 12). These approaches took place with as little as 200 feet of separation between the two vessels and were designed to test the positioning and handling characteristics of Ford during future underway replenishments.
Not all of the firsts that were accomplished by Ford and its crew were planned far in advance.
On Aug. 7, the crew of Ford and the “Night Dippers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 5 assisted a shipmate in distress from USS The Sullivans (DDG 68). It was Ford’s first MEDEVAC as a commissioned warship.
On Aug. 10, Ford was visited by the 76th Secretary of the Navy, the honorable Richard V. Spencer, in his first visit to a U.S. Navy ship while underway.
“I came aboard this big ship and was impressed at 20 miles out. My awe grew every single mile we came closer, but that was overshadowed by the people I’ve met today,” said Spencer to the crew during an all-hands call in the hangar bay. “This is a magnificent ship, but you all make it the tip of the spear that it is.”
While underway, Ford Sailors also took time to hone the ability of the ship to defend itself against potential adversaries. Ford’s weapons department conducted the first underway live fire qualifications for the M9 pistol and the M240B machine gun.
“It’s one of our last lines of defense,” said Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Patrick Flint, one of the instructors for the live-fire qualification. “If something crosses our threshold and they’re hostile, we’re guns-on. Nobody is getting through.”
This underway was not just about testing Ford’s systems and Sailors, it was also a chance to recognize the hard work that has gone into making Ford more than a steel ship floating on the water. On Aug. 15, nine Ford Sailors were recognized as the ship’s first Enlisted Aviation Warfare Specialist and Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist-qualified Sailors.
“There’s a lot of pride and respect that comes with earning wings. It’s a great accomplishment. It means you understand how all the aspects of air warfare come together, how each rate operates and fits into the larger picture,” said Aviation Boatswain Mate (Fuels) 3rd Class Franklen Garrett. “I said from the time I got here that I wanted to be among the first to earn a pin on the Ford. I couldn’t be more proud, and I encourage everyone to put in the work and take this opportunity.”
Ford’s crew was also able to take part in the ship’s first “steel beach picnic” Aug. 12. During a break in underway testing, the crew held a cook-out on the ship’s flight deck complete with hamburgers, hotdogs, and side items. The ship’s Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) division also set up inflatable games in the ship’s hangar bay and sponsored a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
“It was a nice relaxing environment where people didn’t have to be so concerned with work at that moment,” said Personnel Specialist 1st Class DeAndrea Douglas, Ford’s Morale Welfare and Recreation leading petty officer. “Those few hours off made a huge difference, [they] had a huge impact on the crew.”