USS Ford: First of its Class

Text by Joris van Boven
On 7th August 2023, we toured the latest American aircraft carrier, USS Ford (USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78).
USS Ford - US Navy
This aircraft carrier bears the name of the 38th president of the United States of America, who served in the US Navy during the Second World War.

Ford Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States of America, served from 1974 to 1976. He was born in 1913 and lived until 2006. During his service time in World War 2, he served in the US Navy on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean.
E-2 Hawkeye - Joris van Boven
Trip to the USS Ford

On 8th August 2023, a group of aviation reporters assembled in the departure lounge at NAS Sigonella (ICAO code: LICZ) on the island of Sicily, Italy. They boarded a Grumman C-2A ‘Greyhound’ (utilised for Carrier Onboard Delivery, COD), embarking on a 45-minute journey toward the USS Ford, which was sailing between Sicily and Greece.

As they approached the USS Ford, the C-2 entered the landing pattern and executed a ‘controlled crash’ in the arresting wire on the flight deck.
Upon disembarking the C-2, the group made their way to the PAO office, where they were introduced to “Sage,” the ship’s dog, for a whimsical ‘interview.’
Preparing an F/A-18 for take-off - Joris van Boven
Later, the group donned appropriate attire for flight deck operations: long sleeves, long trousers, a cranial with a visor, a white security vest, and protective gloves.

During the initial flight deck session, three F/A-18s were launched in what was termed a ‘cycle 1 launch,’ following which the flight deck was cleared. Each group member was assigned a one-on-one flight deck handler to mitigate hazardous situations on deck.

Post-launch, the flight deck was readied for the landing of the trio of F/A-18s earlier launched, dubbed ‘cycle 1 landing.’

This marked the conclusion of the brief sojourn onboard, with the protective gear being returned to the USS Ford PAO.

The group reboarded the C-2, and after a brief interim of half an hour, the aircraft was catapult-launched for the 45-minute return flight to NAS Sigonella.
During this embarkation, the USS Ford was actively engaged in the 'Sage Wolverine' exercise.
First Impressions Aboard

Upon boarding, noticeable distinctions between the USS Ford and the earlier USS Nimitz aircraft-carrier class are evident.
● The deck on the USS Ford is more expansive compared to that of the USS Nimitz-class, providing additional space for positioning helicopters and aircraft. On the Nimitz-class carriers, helicopters, C-2s, and E-2s are typically stationed before or around the island. Conversely, on the USS Ford, these are placed at different locations on the flight deck.
● Only two arresting cables are in operation, with a spare arresting installation available. On most Nimitz-class carriers, four wires span the deck (with pilots targeting the third wire during landing). The last carrier of the Nimitz-class, the USS Bush, had only three arresting cables stretching across the deck.
● The absence of steam is a notable change. All preceding US Navy aircraft carriers employed steam catapults for aircraft launches, resulting in clouds of steam enveloping the deck during these operations. However, with the Electric Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) on the USS Ford, the deck remains clear of steam.
F/A-18 landing - Joris van Boven
Carrier Strike Group 12

Carrier Strike Group Twelve (CSG-12 or COMCARSTRKGRU 12) ranks among the four US Navy carrier strike groups presently assigned to the United States Fleet Forces Command. The primary objective of carrier strike groups is to secure and sustain sea control, in addition to projecting naval airpower ashore. The USS Gerald R. Ford serves as the flagship for Carrier Strike Group Twelve. Units under the aegis of Carrier Strike Group Twelve include Carrier Air Wing Eight; the Ticonderoga-class cruisers Vicksburg and Normandy; and Destroyer Squadron 2.

Leadership of Carrier Strike Group Twelve is vested in Rear Admiral Erik J. Eslich, who assumed command on 24th May 2023, while the USS Ford was anchored off the coast of Oslo, Norway.
USS Ford's island - Joris van Boven
USS Gerald R. Ford

The USS Gerald R. Ford is an aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, bearing the number 78 and the nickname 'WARSHIP78', which is represented on social media as '#WARSHIP78' or '@WARSHIP_78'. Like all US Navy carriers, the USS Ford has its unique callsign, 'WOLVERINE'. The motto of the ship is "Integrity at the Helm", signifying the values of care and lookout for fellow shipmates. This motto not only reflects the essence of the 38th President's name, which the ship bears, but also resonates with the words of the Ford Foundation's motto, "Integrity at the Helm".

Post its delivery to the US Navy in 2017, the USS Ford encountered some serious 'teething problems' with the armament elevators and the Electric Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Incorporation of state-of-the-art technologies necessitated rigorous real-world testing to ascertain the effectiveness and repairability of the proposed solutions. This led to delays, and the ship became fully operational only in September 2022. A minor shake-down cruise during October and November 2022, taking the USS Ford to the Atlantic Ocean and European seas, helped iron out the remaining issues. The first extensive maiden cruise commenced in May 2023, followed by a transfer to the US Navy 6th Fleet, headquartered in Napoli, Italy. The 6th Fleet oversees the European and African continents, servicing the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S Africa Command (USAFRICOM). The ports of Oslo (Norway) and Split (Croatia) were visited during the maiden cruise for rest and recreation of the onboard crew.
F/A-18 formation - Joris van Boven
Sage - Joris van Boven
Sage, the Onboard Labrador Retriever

Adding to the unique features of the USS Gerald R. Ford is a distinct crew member, Sage, a three-year-old female Labrador Retriever. Sage is the pioneer service dog to deploy with a ship’s crew through a pilot program aimed at addressing mental health and resilience. Having undergone a minimum of 120 hours of training in the United States from the tender age of eight weeks, Sage's mission is to provide comfort and alleviate operational stress among sailors. Sage's training was facilitated by the non-profit organization Mutts, established in 2008 to train service dogs for wounded warriors grappling with PTSD and mobility disabilities. Mutts expanded its mission in 2019 to cater to law enforcement and first responders. Prior to the USS Ford's deployment, Sage was acquainted with life on board the aircraft carrier through several visits. The effectiveness of this program will be evaluated during the deployment, considering factors like interactions between sailors and Sage, morale boost, and Sage's adaptation to sea life. The aim is to enhance sailors' mental health at sea, with Sage already becoming a cherished crew member since the cruise onset on May 2, 2023.
An F/A-18 on a storage deck - Joris van Boven
AirDefender 2023 Exercise

In June 2023, the AirDefender 2023 exercise took place in northern Germany, with a significant presence of US Air National Guard fighter jets at the airbases of Hohn (ICAO: ETNH) and Schleswig-Jagel (ICAO: ETNS). A detachment from the USS Ford's CVW-8 participated in this exercise from Hohn AB, deploying F/A-18 E/F/Gs.