By 2012 the oldest aircraft carrier in the fleet, the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), had been in service for 51 years; the Nimitz-class design was also reaching the end of its ability to be improved. Navy engineers began drafting CVN 21, the title given to the program to construct a new class technologically advanced super-carrier.
The first ship of the new class would have the hull number CVN 78. In 2006, Virginia Senator John Warner, who had served as Secretary of the Navy under Presidents Nixon and Ford, proposed naming the ship after Gerald Ford. Then-President George W. Bush agreed.
The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is similar to the Nimitz-class carriers. Each has a hull of a similar design and length, each can launch four aircraft from their decks, and each can achieve more than 30 knots at sea. But the Ford is a carrier for a new century. Ford will be able to launch four fully loaded aircraft, where flight deck limitations restrict Nimitz to launching lighter aircraft. Ford also abandons the steam and hydraulic launch and recovery systems of past carriers. Electromagnetic launching and arresting systems will send aircraft aloft and trap them on return at a rate much faster than the Nimitz-class.
CVN 78 is fitted with two small, efficient nuclear reactors. These are enough to drive the launching rails and recovery lines, as well as a new antenna system. A smaller "island" (the superstructure that towers above the flight deck), is moved farther aft to create space for easier aircraft handling. A new lift system delivers munitions to the flight deck in a way that is safer and more efficient.
These are among the changes and efficiencies that result in a reduction in crew size and maintenance cost. The power generated by the reactors is enough to handle the full demands of the ship with enough in reserve to accommodate future improvements in technology and weaponry; the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) will be taking the seas well into the later decades of this century.
This milestone event of 100 percent structural completion culminated three years of intense work by Newport News Shipbuilding. It was the last of 162 superlifts in the ship's modular construction. Ye-Ling Wang Bird, Navy deputy program manager for future aircraft carriers elaborated, "She (CVN 78) will provide the Navy with greater operational capability, built-in flexibility to accommodate future improvements and improved survivability at reduced total ownership cost to the taxpayers."
Over 100 million gallons of water flooded the dry dock containing the USS Gerald R. Ford. Susan Ford Bales did the honors by pressing a series of buttons, unleashing the torrent. As Rolf Bartschi explained, "Flooding of the dry dock, floating of the ship, and transfer to the outfitting pier all represent the successful completion of a tremendous amount of hard work by our talented shipbuilders."
Susan Ford Bales christens the USS Gerald R. Ford, introducing a new class of super carrier to the world. Attended by thousands, the ceremony involved the traditional breaking of a bottle of American sparkling wine across the ship's bow. The millennia-old tradition honors the individuality of the ship and the life ahead of her. In one of his final letters, Gerald R. Ford admits, "it is a source of indescribable pride and humility to know that an aircraft carrier bearing my name may be permanently associated with the valor and patriotism of the men and women of the United States Navy."
Lone Sailor Award presented to Gerald R. Ford in 1992. This statuette will eventually be displayed on the USS Gerald R. Ford. Loan Courtesy of the President Gerald R. Ford Historical Legacy Trust.
Ceremonial welder's mask used to cut ship's sponsor Susan Ford Bales' initials into a plate of steel as an official authentication of the keel. Loan Courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.