The United States is building its next generation of aircraft carrier, the FORD-class carriers. The U.S. Navy gave us access to photograph construction of the USS Gerald R. Ford at Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, Newport News, Virgina.
The numbers behind the USS Gerald R. Ford are impressive; about $14 billion in total cost, 224 million pounds, about 25 stories high, four-and-a-half acres long and 250 feet wide. But the sheer enormity of the ship and construction operation is hard to grasp until you’re nearly face-to-metal with the massive military beast.
At Huntington Ingalls the power of new technology and 100 years of carrier design is built into every facet of the new ship. The Ford will handle up to 220 takeoffs and landings from its deck every day. Part of that quick turnaround is because when aircraft like the new F-35 return for maintenance, the plane’s network will already have alerted ground crews to what’s needed so they can get the aircraft on its way faster than ever before.
The new FORD-class aircraft carrier will be the largest, most lethal ship ever when it joins the US fleet in 2016.
The scope of the ship's construction is hard to fathom, but that chain is made up of links weighing 360-pounds each.
It's the weight of the chains that immobilize the 224 million pound carrier, not the anchors like those seen here on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
All that weight starts up here in the 'Bulbous Bow' that displaces the ship's centre of gravity, allowing her to cruise on just the energy required for a much smaller ship.
With its nuclear power plant and extraordinary size, the Ford is manufactured only here at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va.
Using 'Big Blue' — the largest crane in the Western Hemisphere — towering 235 feet above the shipyard.
Big Blue can lift nearly 2.5 million pounds at a time and is essential for assembling the new class of ship.
Replacing the 50-year-old Nimitz-class carrier, engineers at Ingalls designed the Ford to accept technology that won't be seen for decades.
Some of those advancements are expected, but most are as far-fetched as the Navy's newest drones were in 1963.
Regardless of what the future brings, all of it will require more power, which is why the Ford will generate three times the energy of Nimitz-class carriers.
Ingalls has learned a lot about building carriers over the years, like the wisdom of leaving the paint job until the ship is finished. This is done to save on repainting over welds and stresses caused during construction.
Raw steel exposed to salt air causes the rust, but the various other colours denote the thickness of the plates.
Yellow steel is the thinnest part of the hull, green and orange are mid-range, and brown steel is the thickest.
The paint applied to the Ford actually isn't paint, but a 'high solids coating' that lasts longer and doesn't break down as quickly.
Moving the island house (the control tower) back further on the ship will accommodate an increased launch rate for the 75+ planes that will live aboard the carrier.
That increased rate comes in part from replacing the steam-generated catapult systems like those on the USS Abraham Lincoln shown here, with an electromagnetic system that's more efficient and gentler on the multi-million-dollar jets.
Even with the extra fuel and weapons needed to keep that pace, the Ford is equipped to remain at sea without replenishment for months at a time.
Before the FORD-class carriers, Ingalls needed to construct mock-ups of many ship sections to see how it would integrate in construction.
With a pair of these 3D glasses designers are able to see exactly how everything fits together in a virtual environment.
The 3D system also allows engineers to assemble the ship in modules. These modules can be exchanged and modified over the carrier's lifetime.
Inside a module like S/L3609, the electronic workstation could be removed and relocated along with the interior walls and floors. These were all permanent fixtures on previous carriers.
For the first time the Navy will have no urinals on this carrier. Gender neutral toilets mean berthing can be swapped between male and female without concern and one unit means fewer spare parts and repair.
The Navy is requesting larger pipes for the Ford to prevent blockage and unpleasant smells, which are common issues on carriers.
A carrier's effectiveness isn't judged by its plumbing, but by its ability to deliver lethal military force from these 4.5 acres of sovereign US territory.
The SeaSparrow Missile also factors into lethality with its ability to fly four times the speed of sound, turn on a dime, and intercept anti-ship missiles more than 30 miles out.
Criticism of the new carrier, which may be the last of the 'Big' carriers now that drones are replacing manned aircraft, has been swift and harsh.
Facing a longer timeline for completion and burgeoning costs, Ingalls' construction director Geoff Hummel says, 'Problems are something we think about every day.'
'There are going to be issues in a new class of ship,' Hummel says. 'The question is how big are they and how serious?'
Ingalls wants the Ford's eventual new sailors to know that 'this is an awesome ship that they'll bring to life.'
When the Ford finally hits the water in a few years, it will look less like something from 'Waterworld' and more like something from the future.
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