By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Connor D. Loessin
NEWPORT NEW, Va (NNS) – Bodies squeeze past each other, notepads and pens clenched in their hands as they struggle to find their seats. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee flows throughout the compartment. Feedback ekes out of large speakers as the room slowly begins to quiet. Words cut across the compartment, clear and sharp.
“Attention on deck!”
The room stands at immediate attention as the Captain and key department representatives begin the navigation brief inside Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) Chiefs Mess.
Doors close and are dogged down, barring access to all but essential personnel. Captains, commanders, lieutenants and chiefs come one after another to present their plans for the ensuing assessment. Members of Afloat Training Group (ATG) Norfolk examine and silently take notes on each presenter as part of their assessment for the ship’s Crew Certification III, an important milestone in determining the ship’s ability to get to sea.
Presenters, now audience members, wait silently in their seats as Commanding Officer Capt. Richard McCormack takes the podium and addresses his Sailors.
“We’ve done this over and over again, and while we have some people that are observing us, what matters is that you’re doing your job and you’re focusing on the task at hand,” says McCormack.
Since the crew moved onto the ship in August of 2015, Ford Sailors have been working diligently to get the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier out into open waters. Crew Cert III plays a vital role in doing so by assessing the basic underway functional areas required for the crew to take Ford safely out to sea.
Sailors are expected to perform the daily duties of their assigned ratings. From maintaining pipes deep in the ship’s hull, to maintaining the newest and most technologically advanced systems such as the electromagnetic aircraft launching system, Ford Sailors are working around the clock to ensure the forward progress of their ship.
As crew certification begins, Sailors listen closely to every announcement coming over the general announcing system or 1 MC.
The training environment is set over the 1MC by Ford’s training officer, Lt. Cmdr. Alicia Salerno.
“Good morning Gerald R. Ford,” said Salerno. “We will remain in the training environment throughout the day. Today’s drills will affect different parts of the ship at different times, so continue to listen to the 1 MC for appropriate responses.”
Sailors bustle about the flight deck and inside the skin of the ship, driven and focused to get the job done.
Suddenly, the clamor of a bell resonates throughout the ship from the 1 MC, being heard from the highest level to the deepest decks.
“Smoke, smoke, smoke,” says the watch stander. “White smoke reported in compartment. Flying squad respond from repair locker four. All hands not involved, stand clear.”
The red coveralls of the flying squad – the Ford’s specially trained damage control team – flood the passageways, darting toward the reported fire shouting, “Make a hole!” Sailors transiting the passageways press their bodies up against the bulkheads, making way for ship’s first responders.
Sailors, in organized frenzy, move in and out of the repair locker, the storage compartment and main hub for combatting the casualty in the area, grabbing firefighting ensembles and assembling into teams.
Again, bells blare out from the 1 MC.
“Medical emergency, medical emergency. Medical emergency reported in compartment. Away the medical response team. All hands not involved stand clear.”
A team of hospital corpsmen dash to the scene of the emergency and once again Sailors make a path, saving valuable seconds for the responders.
Finally, after demonstrating their ability to combat fires and provide effective medical response another announcement comes across the 1 MC.
“This is the Damage Control Assistant from Damage Control Central. Stop the problem, stop the clock. Restow all gear.”
Ford has come a long way since the first piece of steel was cut back in August 2005. Built to help accommodate a forward deployed naval force, a massive first-in-class aircraft carrier doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Many of the ship’s crew remember the days of working out of a building, without any of the tools essentials to their jobs.
“It’s come a long way,” said Quartermaster 1st Class Jose Triana, leading petty officer for the ship’s navigation department. “We’ve gone from not even having an office, or an instruction, publication, or chart to work on to now being fully allocated and getting ready to go underway for the first time.”
From an empty steel hull, to the now 99% complete aircraft carrier, the ship and its crew have been through their fair share of challenges.
“The guys have come a very long way over the last two years,” said Chief Boatswain’s Mate Brian Epling. “To see the forecastle come from nothing to the blue deck and white walls is an amazing thing.”
The Sailors became more experienced as the ship progressed through construction.
“They show up big-eyed for something to do and it has taken a while to get to the point where we can just do this like we do now,” said Epling. “Their transformation from coming here and not knowing anything, or just not seeing it, has been an experience. Everyone is fresh. They’ve all built the experience together and it’s been an amazing process so far.”
Through their work ethic and the drive towards the common goal of delivering the ship, the crew’s relationships are strengthened.
“We went from just talking about it and reading slideshows to actually getting ready to go out to sea,” said Quartermaster 2nd Class Audrey Jackson. “It’s so exciting.”
The expectations for the crew’s performance have continued to grow since the first general quarters drill only a year ago.
“It’s been enjoyable watching that growth from a very basic level to the level we’re at now,” said Master Chief Fire Controlman Jason Kutsch, leading chief for training. “I look forward to seeing the crew continue to grow by leaps and bounds over the next couple years.”
Weekly general quarters and nightly duty drills kept Sailors on top of their game as Crew Certification III came to a close.
But the training isn’t over.
“After Crew Cert, we’ll continue to train,” said Salerno. “Next up is a Fast Cruise to make sure we can go out to sea. It’s not graded, but we will send a message out saying we have completed all of our steps to go into the builder’s trials, which is quite extensive.”
Painstaking patience and a commitment to cultivating young talent has resulted in a team that is motivated and prepared to get the job done.
“These have got to be some of the best Sailors that I’ve ever worked with,” said Epling. “This particular crew that I have up here, they want to be here. They want to do this. I appreciate all they’ve done. They’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go, but they truly professional Sailors.”