One year after they debuted on the newly commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the Navy’s revolutionary new aircraft catapult and arresting gear have proven their viability.
Since first launching and recovering aircraft at-sea July 28, 2017—six days after Ford’s commissioning—the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arrested Gear (AAG) have successfully executed 747 day-and-night catapult launches and arrestments of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The initial goal was to conduct between 400 and 500 such cycles prior to the post-shakedown availability (PSA) Ford began July 14, said Capt. Stephen Tedford, the former program manager for the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Program Office at Naval Air Systems Command. Tedford led the program office from September 2014 until his change of command on July 12.
Fully installed on Ford, the four EMALS catapults and AAG, which comprises three engines powering three arresting wires, are set for initial operational capability in 2019 and 2021, respectively, prior to the ship’s first scheduled deployment.
Through January, Ford had six at-sea periods, four of which included EMALS launches and AAG recoveries. Multiple times, the systems launched and recovered more than 80 Super Hornets in a single day, including one day with more than 110 cycles, and another with more than 130, Tedford said.
“We had a very successful fall demonstrating on CVN 78. We have an awful lot of work to do still, and we will always have work to do to maintain these systems and sustain them in the future, but they do work,” Tedford said. “To me, the proof that we are doing things right is when I talk to the Sailors on 78, and when those Sailors tell me that they never want to go back to Nimitz, we got something right.
“After all, it’s EMALS and AAG that truly make Ford an aircraft carrier.”
Systems Deliver Advantages
EMALS and AAG are designed to, respectively, launch and recover a wider envelope of aircraft than the legacy steam catapult and MK 7 arresting gear. They also weigh less and require significantly less manning—AAG alone saves 65 tons and requires half the manning of the MK-7.
“The difference in performance, you can definitely feel it,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Struck, a pilot with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, who flew the first launch-and-recovery off Ford in July 2017. “With the old arresting gear, you catch the wire and have a constant deceleration until you stop. With AAG, it tries to reduce the load on the aircraft. It’s not a constant deceleration; it’s controlled by software, so you catch the wire, and you can feel the system adjusting your deceleration profile.”
Struck said launching with EMALS also feels “just a little bit different” than with steam catapults.
“EMALS is also driven by software, so the acceleration profile is slightly different, a little smoother,” he said.
EMALS and AAG also promise significant quality-of-life improvements for Ford Sailors. The all-electric systems also generate far less noise and heat than the legacy steam catapult and hydraulic MK-7 arresting gear.
On the flight deck, EMALS largely resembles the steam catapults on Nimitz-class carriers, but below deck, it’s a different story, said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Launching and Recovery) Petty Officer 1st Class (ABE1) Daniel Rivera.
“The steam cats are made up of mainly hydraulic, pneumatic and mechanical components, so maintenance on them is very dirty, oily and usually under highly volatile conditions,” he said. “On the other hand, EMALS is electrical. There are numerous cabinets and enclosures containing various electrical components that require regular inspection, but the spaces are well-ventilated, and the equipment contains little to no grease or oil.”
“There is a huge difference between both systems,” ABE1 John Thompson said of AAG and the MK-7. “Along with being able to handle different types of aircraft, it also brings a completely different lifestyle for Sailors who will be operating the equipment. Going from a system which is primarily operated by hydraulics to a system driven by electricity and computer software and sensors, it greatly reduces the amount of maintenance from both a preventative and corrective standpoint.”
Built-in diagnostics identify components in need of repair, making EMALS and AAG far more reliable and easier to maintain than the legacy systems.
“Life as a maintainer is much easier working on EMALS than on steam catapults,” Rivera said. “When there is a problem with EMALS, the system is able to determine exactly what is wrong, so there is less manpower needed to troubleshoot.
“Once the problem is identified, EMALS is more plug-and-play than steam catapults, meaning Sailors can simply remove a failed component instead of attempting to fix it on the spot. This results in less downtime of the equipment and more availability to complete the ship’s mission of launching and recovering aircraft.”
Test and Evaluation Phase
Having completed land-based developmental testing at its test site at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, EMALS will soon begin an integrated test and evaluation (IT&E) period, which will include system reliability testing.
A key performance parameter for any new aircraft system, reliability ensures operational readiness for the fleet. Single-day shipboard operations have shown that both systems are able to meet operational requirements.
“In developmental testing, we’re trying to find problems with these systems,” Tedford said. “We then take that data and do the best we can to generate predictions of what we think our reliability will be when we get to the ship.
“What we learned on CVN 78 last year was that our reliability for both systems was significantly better than our land-based data was predicting, which is a good thing.”
As for AAG, “the team has made incredible progress over the last two years,” Tedford said. The system has conducted more than 2,000 arrestments using dead-loads, weighted sleds that replicate the mass and—when pushed by a jet car—force of an aircraft.
Following its year-long PSA, Ford is set to undergo flight deck certification with components of the entire air wing sometime in 2020, Tedford said.
Training and Logistics Underway
The Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, Florida, is developing a virtual training classroom that will allow Sailors to practice on virtual EMALS and AAG systems displayed on 55-inch touchscreens. The classroom will be stood up at the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, so that when the Ford is in homeport, students can go straight from the virtual environment to the ship for direct, hands-on experience. Ford Sailors will also be able to deploy with a condensed version of the training program, so that they can train new shipmates as they arrive. The training should be ready for EMALS in fiscal 2020 and AAG in 2022, Tedford said.
Meanwhile, logistics teams are also working on both systems’ Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETMs), which allow Sailors to pull up drawings and other reference material when performing maintenance.
“These are the systems of the future for the Ford class,” Tedford said. “Both systems have proven, demonstrated performance on Ford, and we’re already in production on both systems for CVN 79 and CVN 80. It’s not a question of if they will work; they do work. Now it’s a question of getting all of the other pieces of any system’s debut in line.”
That includes everything related to maintainability, reliability, spare parts, training and logistics, “the pieces that typically come together toward the end of any development program,” Tedford said.
His team is working with the Naval Supply Systems Command and Defense Logistics Agency to establish an EMALS and AAG supply chain, and planning kicks off next year for both systems’ depot facilities.
“We’ve got EMALS and AAG debuted, so now the focus is on how we posture ourselves and the fleet to sustain them as a system, making sure that we’re training the crew adequately and ensuring we are positioned for the future with CVN 79 and CVN 80. Instead of focusing on a single system, we are focusing on a fleet of systems. That’s the challenge ahead of us,” Tedford said.
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor for Naval Aviation News.