Making the world's most cutting-edge aircraft carrier

Road Trip 2010: At Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., the Navy's next-generation carrier is well under way. It will forever change the way such vessels are made.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

An artist's rendering of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of the Ford class of aircraft carriers. It is being built at the Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding yard in Newport News, Va. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding

NEWPORT NEWS, Va.--I'm staring down into a pit in which the beginnings of what will one day be the most advanced aircraft carrier on Earth are already well under way.

This is the dry dock of CVN-78, otherwise known as the Gerald R. Ford, the first in a technologically advanced new class of aircraft carriers known as, yes, the Gerald R. Ford, and yes, named after the 38th president of the United States. A new class of naval vessel is always known by the name of the first model, it seems.

CVN-78 is being built by Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, and inside the dry dock, a 2,200-foot-long pit that is sunk down feet below the ground surrounding it, workers have completed 15 percent of this giant ship. Already, after three years of construction, the various levels of the vessel are coming into shape, much like an office building under construction. They've built it up 35 feet from the bottom of the dry dock so far.

Building the world's most advanced aircraft carrier (photos)

See all photos

I was here as part of Road Trio 2010, my fifth annual exploration of a region of the United States in search of the most interesting destinations around. I had worked for months on arranging this visit but had no idea that by the time I arrived and began my tour that the entourage escorting me through the shipyard would number 12, including two U.S. Navy commanders.

One reason for the hefty accompaniment is security: I have been told there are very strict limits on what I'm able to see, and even more on what I'm allowed to photograph. The dry dock, for example, is off-limits for photos, and when I inquire as to the rationale, I'm told, "If they know how [the Ford] is built, they can figure out how to [hurt] it."

First new class
When it is delivered to the U.S. Navy, likely in 2015--it will be launched out of dry dock in 2013, Hummel said, and then go through two years of having its "hotel and combat spaces" added and a series of systems tests--the USS Gerald R. Ford will be the first new aircraft carrier of any kind since the USS George H. W. Bush in 2003 and the first new class of aircraft since the USS Nimitz in 1968.

The Ford class carriers move the innovation needle forward with a series of new technologies, including a replacement for the traditional steam catapults called the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, as well as Advanced Jet Blast deflectors, which together will be used to more efficiently launch aircraft; "Pit stop" fueling stations, which are said to more quickly get planes ready for their next launch; Green technologies and systems, including the so-called Plasma Arc Waste Disposal System, which is intended to cut on-board waste; a brand-new propulsion plant; an improved structural design and more. Ultimately, the goal is that Ford class carriers, starting with the USS Gerald R. Ford, will be able to launch more sorties in the case of combat operations.

And, of course, the carrier is going to be big. Really big. All told, this giant will be 1,080 feet long, 100 feet high, its flight deck will be 250 feet wide, and it will be 134 feet wide at the water line. It will feature 47,000 tons of steel. When Northrop Grumman delivers the vessel, the Navy will then continue adding its ammunition and supply systems.

In this file photo, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding workers pour 35 tons of steel for use in the building of the USS Gerald R. Ford. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding

Indeed, while the carrier is being built and designed here in Newport News, the Navy is designing its catapult in New Jersey. "Our job," said Geoff Hummel, a construction director at the shipbuilding site here, "is to figure out how to put it on the ship."

And while the Navy has to date only ordered this one new carrier, Hummel said the ultimate order will be up to the Navy. "We'd like to make a lot," he joked. "We're getting pretty good at this."

First for the Ford
Befitting a brand-new class of aircraft carrier, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding has implemented a first at the shipyard itself that it hopes will aid in the construction of the vessel.

One, said Hummel, is what is called the Covered Modular Outfitting Facility. This is a huge covered building that allows crew members in the summer to do their construction jobs under a roof rather than work with steel under the broiling Virginia sun. But since some of the carrier sections that they're building are so big, the building has a retractable roof that can open up 150 feet of space and let a crane move the huge pieces out.

The pieces, known as units, are lifted away by crane and then assembled by welding them together with other pieces into what are called superlifts. The crane that hoists these giant units is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, Hummel said, and has a lifting capacity of 1,050 metric tons.

A side view of two superlifts at the Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding facility in Newport News, Virginia. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Hummel showed me a superlift, a gigantic piece of steel with the rudimentary shape of a ship. It weighs 1,000 tons, he said, and is 80 feet long, 100 feet high, and 35 feet high. Before it's finished, the USS Gerald R. Ford will feature about 510 total units, of which 160 will be superlifts and about 350 smaller units.

Each superlift is built in what's called "ship's position," meaning in the same orientation as the carrier is being constructed in the dry dock. That way, Hummel said, the crane can pick it up and then set it down properly without having to turn it in any way.

Our last stop of the day was a demo of a 3D visualization and collaboration tool that Northrop Grumman has used to help build the USS Ford called ROVR.

ROVR is expected to save a minimum of 2 million man hours over the course of the project as the tool helps all the various stakeholders in the building of the carrier--the Navy, welders, pipe fitters, and other workers, as well as construction managers--get their say into how their needs are best met.

How? By helping each group see exactly how their needs--say, to have a set of pipes fit in a small area--will work alongside the needs of others. In the past, explained construction director Sam Vreeland, carriers and other Naval vessels have been built by using paper plans, efficiency be damned. And that often meant that if one trade group realized their pipes had to come out for maintenance but couldn't fit around another set, someone might have to cut a hole in a ceiling. Or take out more pipes.

With ROVR, it is possible for the first time to use software to see, in 3D, how everything fits together. Each group's systems are color-coded, and there are special graphical representations of the ways that all pieces fit in and come out, known as the "chain fall," so everyone can see, in advance, what are the ramifications of moving things.

This is the ROVR 3D collaboration and visualization tool. It allows everyone involved to see how the various component parts of the vessel come together and fit in with other systems. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.

And that's crucial because a ship like the USS Ford has a 50-year lifecycle, and things are going to need to come out for maintenance. The tool, then, should help avoid many of the costly and time-consuming work-arounds that have been par for the course in the past.

And, it should help Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding construct the USS Ford for less than the cost of the last Nimitz-class carrier.

How to build an aircraft carrier
This is how you build an aircraft carrier, explained Vreeland: you start with the keel unit. Then you add a bottom unit at 3 months. At six months, you've finished the lower side shell. By nine months in, you've completed the lower side shells. At a year, you're up to the fourth deck but still low on the ship. By 18 months in, you've gotten to the main deck, where the hangar bay is located, but you're still below the bow line. Two years in, and you're above the main deck, to about 60 feet high. At 30 months, you've reached the flight deck, but you're still not past the water line beam. And at 40 months, you reach the island house, and "at that point, we're ready push her over sail and get her wet."

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.