The lead ship in the first U.S. carrier class in more than 40 years, pre commissioning unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), will usher Naval Aviation into its second century with improvements on the previous Nimitz-class to increase sortie rates, boost efficiency and reduce ownership costs over the course of its 50-year lifespan.
By Jeff Newman
With construction more than 96 percent complete and 89 percent of compartments turned over to the crew, the warship is well on its way to being delivered to the Navy this spring. “Ford has more than 1,800 Sailors in her crew today, and will be at its full complement next spring,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sean Robertson, the ship’s public affairs officer. When she first deploys, there will be between 500 to 900 fewer Sailors in the ship’s company than her Nimitz counterpart.
A recent tour of the 100,000-ton supercarrier as it sat tethered to the dock in Newport News, Virginia, revealed an immense pride among the crew. Each Sailor participating in the tour was eager to emphasize how both the mission and their quality of life would be improved by the ship’s new technologies and design.
Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System
The most high-profile upgrade is the transition from the steam catapult to the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which employs electromagnetic energy to propel aircraft. Beneath the flight deck, two rows of linear motor “stators” run the length of the 300-foot catapult track. Between the stators rides an armature, which is linked to the launching aircraft through a slot in the flight deck. The stators release electromagnetic pulses that propel the armature—and the aircraft—down the track.
Three energy storage groups (ESGs) produce the electricity needed to fire the catapults, and each ESG has four motor generators that draw power from the ship’s twin nuclear reactors and store it for launch. Each launch requires an enormous amount of energy, but Ford will be able to fire all four catapults in quick succession, within five to seven seconds of each other, said Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony Couitt, an aviation boatswain’s equipment mate.
“The only limitation we have is how fast the motor generators can recharge themselves. If all 12 [generators] are up and running, and we have a lot of power, we can go bang-bang-bang-bang.”
Two of Ford’s four catapults successfully launched dead-load sleds into Virginia’s James River in June, and the other two recently had their armatures installed and began testing.
The system steadily accelerates aircraft throughout the launch, putting less stress on the airframe than the abrupt force released by the steam catapult, and theoretically extending the service life of aircraft.
In addition to the reduced strain on aircraft, EMALS also lessens the burden on the ship’s crew.
“It’s a lot easier on the manpower,” Couitt said. “We have fewer watch stations. It’s better living conditions for the crew. We have a lot less maintenance, whereas on Nimitz-class carriers, we were up all night. Steam from the launch valves means it’s hot all the time, we’re sweating, covered in grease, working late. [EMALS] has a lot of maintenance that goes along with it, but it will be a lot easier on us.”
A “maintenance work station” console monitors the system and diagnoses and troubleshoots problems.
“[If] any one thing goes wrong in the entire system, it will pop up [and we] will know exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it,” Couitt said.
Gone are the maintenance-intensive water brakes required to stop a steam catapult’s pistons; to stop the armature following launch, EMALS merely reverses the magnetic forces. In the event it fails to brake, the system employs a rudimentary failsafe—a series of stainless steel honeycomb blocks sit at the end of the catapult track, awaiting a wayward armature. Should the failsafe be needed, crunched blocks are simply changed out for new ones.
“They’re just cubes that are meant to be crushed,” Couitt said.
In addition to the reduced maintenance, the new braking system brings a less obvious benefit to the crew—the lack of booming water brakes makes for smoother sleep for Sailors housed in berthing beneath the first and second catapults.
Combined with flight deck reconfigurations designed to hasten flight operations, EMALS boasts a projected ability to sustain a launch rate of more than 160 sorties per day, a 33 percent increase when compared to Nimitz-class carriers. That figure spikes to 270 sorties per day during intensive operations.
The bolstered sortie rate called for a commensurate uptick in the flow of weapons, so the Ford comes outfitted with 11 electromagnetic weapons elevators—four of which reach the flight deck—that can each carry a maximum load of 24,000 pounds, versus the hydraulic elevators on Nimitz-class ships, which max out at 10,500 pounds. Instead of in a cramped assembly area known as the “bomb farm” on the flight deck of Nimitz-class carriers, weapons on Ford are stored and handled below deck in a cavernous chamber before being transferred up in the weapons elevators.
“I’m a big fan,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class James Henderson, an ordnance handling officer. “Old days, on Nimitz-class, if it was raining and you had ordnance on deck, you were out in the rain on deck with it hanging out, chilling. This is safer for everyone involved in the ordnance evolution.”
More Efficient Flight Deck Operations
Elsewhere on the ship’s deck, the island superstructure has been moved roughly 140 feet aft to provide “better visibility and better usage of the flight deck area” by removing the ‘bomb farm’ and an aircraft elevator that, on Nimitz-class carriers, sit between the island and outboard line of the ship, said Cmdr. Scott Kramarik, Ford’s navigator.
The relocation results in an ‘incredibly bigger’ workable space on the deck, allowing the crew to line up more aircraft behind the catapults, said Petty Officer 1st Class Kyle Bouska, an aviation boatswain’s handling mate. It is typical to back-and-stack up to six aircraft—a “six pack”—on a Nimitz-class carrier, but on Ford, the increased deck area allows for the staging of up to 10 aircraft, he said.
“So, for the first and second goes, we’ll be able to have them right here ready to go, with fewer aircraft on the fantail for us to shuffle around, so we’re pretty much set up for recovery already,” Bouska said.
The island has also been moved a few feet outboard “so you have a better line of sight right down the edge of the ship,” Kramarik said.
The captain’s sightline during embarking or replenishments at sea is further bolstered by the placement of the Starboard Conning station near Kramarik’s station on the main bridge.
“He wants to be able to look right down the side of the ship so he knows exactly how close we’re getting to the pier or to those other ships,” Kramarik said. “All of those things together, somebody thought about whenever the ship was designed.”
Scattered across the flight deck are six in-deck fueling stations, which have been placed in high-traffic spots to cut down on the time spent dragging fuel hoses across the runway. On Nimitz-class carriers, the fuel hosses are located along the edge of the ship.
“With aircraft moving around, it’s easier for us to have the in-deck stations instead of doing long pulls,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Roderick Sinclair, an aviation boatswain’s fuels mate.
Aircraft waiting to take off will often receive a top-off to replace the fuel burned while idling on the runway, Sinclair said. Instead of dragging a fuel hose from the edge of the ship, Ford’s in-deck stations have been laid out specifically to serve areas on the flight deck where aircraft most often need refueling.
“It helps cut down on the distance, and you can get them out of here faster,” Sinclair said.
In addition, Catapult Two’s jet blast deflector (JBD) has been moved so that it will no longer foul the landing area while raised for launch, eliminating time wasted waiting for the JBD to lower before aircraft recovery can begin.
The new deck layout also allows for more room to store aircraft. For instance, the “finger,” located aft of one of the aircraft elevators, can store only one plane on Nimitz-class carriers; on Ford, the area can fit three aircraft, Bouska said.
“It’s going to be interesting to get all the aircraft up here and move them around and maximize our space,” he said.
Though they’ll be aboard the most technologically advanced carrier in history, Ford’s crew will spend their first year at sea navigating the “old school” way, with paper charts, Kramarik said.
The ship was designed to be navigated electronically, but an updated version of the voyage management system has not been fully approved for Ford, Kramarik said. Other Navy platforms, including several destroyers, are already running the latest software, while the rest of the fleet’s carriers navigate electronically with an older version of the system, he said.
“There’s a little bit off hesitancy on our side, only because nobody really does [paper charts] as much anymore since we’ve transitioned to [electronic navigation], but I’ve got plenty of folks with plenty of experience on paper, so I’m not concerned,” Kramarik said.
The delayed implementation of the voyage management system has also spurred a minor redesign of the Ford’s bridge—during the tour, construction crews were working to clear out space near Kramarik’s station for a chart table.
“One of my biggest things from the minute that I stepped in here was, that I need a chart table on the bridge,” Kramarik said.
Though it is not yet allowed to fully navigate with the new system, Ford can use it for situational awareness, Kramarik said. Once the system is approved, the crew will no longer be allowed to use paper charts, he said.
Ford Sailors are currently undergoing training across the globe in preparation for the ship’s maiden voyage.
“I have some simulator access in different locations, but the absolute best place is to get underway on another carrier, so we’ll send them out on, you name it,” Kramarik said. “We have  Sailors completing various training onboard the USS George Washington (CVN 73), that’s working her way around from the West Coast to the East Coast right now.”
With the full crew set to be on board by spring, several Sailors who have witnessed the ship’s development mentioned the possibility of extending their tours so they could serve on the Ford’s initial shakedown cruises.
Couitt called it “pretty exciting” to be part of the first crew to operate and maintain EMALS, and hoped he would get the see the system as a finished product.
“Hopefully we get to launch aircraft on it before I leave here,” he said.
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor to Naval Aviation News magazine.
FULL STEAM AHEAD: Navy Engineer’s Career Tracks Catapult Evolution
By Paula Paige
There’s nothing “modest” about the Navy’s new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), and perhaps one naval engineer knows this best.
Eighty-year-old Modest (moh-DEST’) Zacharczenko (za-kar-CHEN’-ko) has spent most of his 55-year career working on the Navy’s aircraft launch and recovery systems, 43 of them in the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment Program Office (PMA-251) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.
Although the veteran engineer didn’t witness the June 5 EMALS test aboard pre-commissioning unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), he influenced the evolution of the catapult system that will eventually replace the current steam-powered version.
Zacharczenko is the Aviation Ship Integration (ASI) Department’s deputy director for aviation systems at Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aircraft Carriers, a job ensuring the successful integration of the Navy’s aviation and shipboard systems. Although based at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., he is aligned under Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).
Despite the complexities of working with different organizations, Zacharczenko said he “is simply focused on getting aircraft safely in the air and back on deck and providing support for every ship afloat.
“Without the installed aircraft catapults and arresting gear, there would be no naval tactical aviation as we know it,” he said. “The bottom line in aircraft carrier aviation is flight safety of manned and unmanned aircraft.”
For Zacharczenko, who calls EMALS the “Navy’s future workhorse,” the delivery of the Ford is also a harbinger of his eventual retirement.
“My goal is to see the Ford commissioned and go on the trials with EMALS onboard,” he said. “Then, my job will be done.”
For now, however, he is focused on ensuring the catapult’s transition from steam to electromagnetics. Although EMALS will eventually replace steam catapults on Ford-class aircraft carriers, Zacharczenko said it deserved a salute.
“Steam has served us superbly,” he said. “The Navy will use a mix of EMALS and steam catapults, with steam being used on Nimitz-class carriers and continue to be used until 2059.”
His first steam engine
Born in Ukraine, Zacharczenko said he was 8 years old when an uncle presented him with a small-scale working steam engine, piquing his interest in an eventual career. But the turmoil of war would steal his childhood.
Zacharczenko said he and his family were forced to flee Ukraine during World War II to escape brutal Communist and Nazi forces that executed and deported millions of citizens.
“My granddad and father’s older brothers were all executed,” he said. “My father was on a hit list to be executed by the Communists. He was the only male survivor in his family.”
Eventually, Zacharczenko and his family made their way to New York City via a converted troop carrier ship. By then, he was 14. He graduated from high school and earned a scholarship to attend City College of New York. Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen in 1953 and said he was “proud to cast his first vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower for president.”
Upon graduation in 1959 and concurrent commissioning as a second lieutenant under the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program, he landed a job as a development test engineer at then-Naval Air Test Facility, Lakehurst, New Jersey. Zacharczenko later left Lakehurst for NAVAIR headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia, moving with the command to NAS Patuxent River.
During that time, he implemented significant advancements in the catapult’s development. Recognizing the need to minimize demand for high-pressure steam and competition with the ship’s propulsion system, in 1982 he led the development of the low-pressure catapult, the C-13 Mod 2 “Fat Cat,” which reduced the frequency and extent of maintenance actions of the propulsion components aboard Nimitz-class carriers.
The effort saved the Navy more than $600 million and earned Zacharczenko NAVAIR’s Cost Reduction Achievement Award for a single action. Additionally, in 2003, he helped establish the ASI Department, which bridges the gap between the Navy’s aviation and maritime capabilities.
Formerly a public affairs officer for NAVAIR’s Program Management competency, Paula Paige is chief, strategic communication for the Veteran Affairs.