If you are into Legos, you have probably dreamed of building something huge: maybe a building or a vehicle of your own design that would take up half of your bedroom.
But try to imagine starting from scratch to build a ship that would be more than 1,000 feet long and 250 feet wide. Instead of carrying tiny plastic figures, it would carry people — more than 4,600 of them — and 75 airplanes. And instead of lasting a few days or weeks, your ship would need to last 50 years.
That’s what the United States Navy asked shipbuilders to come up with several years ago. The Navy wanted a new kind of aircraft carrier for the 21st century. The first of these new carriers, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is scheduled to be christened (that means officially named) in Newport News, Virginia, on Saturday.
Getting this ship from the drawing board to a finished exterior has taken an amazing amount of creativity, manpower and materials.
Aircraft carriers have been part of the Navy since the 1920s. The first carrier, the USS Langley, was not quite 550 feet long and could transport 36 planes. By 1960, when the USS Enterprise was launched, carriers were more than 1,000 feet long and carried about 60 aircraft. Many of the 10 carriers still used by the Navy are getting old and have become expensive to operate. So about five years ago, the Navy ordered a redesigned aircraft carrier.
“A ship that’s cheaper to own and operate,” said Rolf Bartschi in describing what the Navy wanted. “It was designed to need less sailors and to [use] the latest technology.”
Bartschi, who oversees the Ford’s construction for Newport News Shipbuilding, said the carrier — named for the 38th U.S. president — also needed to be able to launch and refuel airplanes more quickly.
So how could the ship save money and do its job better?
Engineers found that they could reduce costs by having machines or computers do some things that humans had done, such as opening and closing the ship’s many valves. Using technology is expected to save between $4 billion and $5 billion over 50 years, Bartschi said.
They also rethought how planes were moved to different parts of the ship to get fuel, repairs and weapons.
“The Navy looked at NASCAR and how do they do pit stops,” he said.
So the flight deck was enlarged and rearranged. The Ford is expected to be able to launch 25 percent more combat missions each day than older carriers.
The redesign also involved making the ship more comfortable for its 4,660 sailors, about 500 fewer than the crews of older carriers.
“When a ship goes out to sea, the crew is on the ship for a very long time,” Bartschi said.
A carrier needs to have bunks, a dining area, a gym, a chapel and spots to watch movies or TV. The old carriers have these areas, but some are poorly designed, Bartschi said.
For example, sailors on some ships must line up for food in a busy main corridor that is also needed to get people from one end of the carrier to the other.
“With this ship, they designed the serving line so that you're not in that high-traffic area,” he said. “You’re not in anybody’s way.”
Also, toilets and showers — located outside the bunk rooms in other carriers — will be located inside those rooms on the Ford — a major improvement for middle-of-the-night bathroom visits.
The building of the Ford, which began in November 2009, has involved about 5,000 workers, including 3,500 craftsmen, electricians, welders, machinists and pipe fitters. The parts they work with range from enormous to tiny.
“It’s handling a 2,000-pound foundation to hooking a fiber-optic cable,” Bartschi said.
Matt Platteel, 24, started almost three years ago as a pipe fitter. He’s now with the watertight crew.
“We pretty much install the doors and make sure they are working properly,” Platteel said.
The Virginia Beach native is in the shipbuilder’s apprentice school, a four- or five-year program that provides classroom studies and on-the-job training for shipyard specialties.
Working on a ship is great, Platteel said, “if you love working with your hands.”
After his apprenticeship, Platteel may find himself learning another shipbuilding specialty.
“I would love to go into the nuclear side of things or the engineering side of things,” he said. Those specialties are important for the Ford because the ship will run on nuclear power and because engineers came up with the design with the help of 3-D models.
Building the Ford would have been impossible without tools, but especially a crane nicknamed “Big Blue.” The 233-foot-tall crane weighs 10 million pounds and can lift 2.3 million pounds. It allows workers to assemble parts of the carrier in several spots before moving them into their permanent positions.
“Big Blue” moved the final piece on the hull, or main body of the ship, into place in May, but there’s still lots of work on the inside and testing to be done before it’s handed over to the Navy in early 2016.
Both Bartschi and Platteel said the most amazing part of working on the Ford has been seeing the pieces come together.
“I saw the design years ago,” Bartschi said. “But you’re never really sure how it’s going to look when you build it.”
Here is some of what has been needed to build the new aircraft carrier.
●10-million-pound crane (it can lift the weight of about 150 empty school buses)
●44,000 high-efficiency fluorescent lightbulbs (enough to light up more than 1,000 houses)
●200,000 gallons of paint (enough to cover the White House 350 times)
●4 million feet of fiber-optic cable (enough to reach the international space station thee times)
Length: 1,092 feet
Width of flight deck: 257 feet
Height: 252 feet
Size of its four propellers: 21 feet diameter, 30 tons each
Weight: More than 90,000 tons
Aircraft onboard: 75
Crew: 4,660 sailors
Meals produced each day: 15,000
Cost: $12.9 billion (that’s $12,900,000,000)