On the Waterfront – A-Fording an Island

(Pensacola, Florida; Feb. 26, 2023) – Very few jobs involve hanging out underneath a 555 metric ton (nearly 612 regular ton) steel superstructure swinging over one’s head, but the Navy is not just a job, it’s an adventure!

This adventure played out on a cold, snowy day in Newport News, Virginia, as the final piece of the nascent carrier Gerald R. Ford was lifted slowly into place—the ship’s island.

I was a Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class attached to the Naval Public Affairs Support Element (NPASE) East, based on board Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia.  NPASE exists to put public affairs officers and enlisted Mass Communication Specialists aboard Navy vessels when they deploy, as well as man-up other military missions and events.  I was the Training Manager and on shore duty, so my job normally entailed writing lesson plans and manning the classroom.  However, I jumped at the chance to cover a major event at Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding on a cold, snowy Saturday, January 26, 2013.

Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford’s  (CVN 78) island is lifted into place at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia, Jan. 26, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

The ceremony was being held on Saturday, January 26, 2013, so NPASE East was looking for volunteers to cove rit.  This is history, so I jumped at volunteering along with Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine.  We trundled over to Newport News through a misty, gray winter day. 

I’d never been inside a drydock before.  Sadly, this event wouldn’t allow any of us to tour the drydock floor underneath the Ford, but looking down at the titanic rudders (still wrapped in scaffolding) was a unique way to experience the size of the ship.  The island itself sat on the deck next to the drydock, already secured by sturdy cables to Big Blue. 

The day began with the requisite speeches given by numerous dignitaries in a small tent on the pier next to the drydock.  Officials from Hunting Ingalls spoke, the ship’s future captain spoke, an admiral or two gave remarks.  Finally, the speaker we’d all been waiting for came to the podium: the ship’s sponsor, Mrs. Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the late President Gerald R. Ford.

President Ford is best known as having been the only president never elected to either the Vice Presidency of the Presidency.  He wound up in power after Vice President Agnew, and, later, President Nixon, were forced to resign owing to the Watergate scandal.  Ford’s administration was a short one, and he was defeated for reelection.  President Ford was also a naval officer during World War II.  He saw combat in numerous Pacific engagements, and even heroically helped contain a fire aboard the light carrier USS Monterey (CVL 26).

Mrs. Bales spoke glowingly about her father’s memories of his Navy years, as well as shared some funny anecdotes about being a young adult in the White House.  She concluded her speech by giving the order via radio to Big Blue’s operator to begin the super-lift.

Mrs. Susan Ford Bales, sponsor of the PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), greets members of the ship’s core crew Jan. 26, 2013. These sailors are the nucleus of the company that will eventually take Ford to sea. Bales was on hand to witness the final major step in the ship’s construction–the ‘landing’ of the ship’s island on the flight deck. Ford is being built by Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. Newport News, Virginia. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Built in 1976, Big Blue is 233 feet tall and spans 540 feet from end to end.  Its lifting capacity is so great that Ford’s 550 metric ton island was actually a small super-lift for the thing.  The island was hauled up slowly until it hovered well above the flight deck before the crane began smoothly, carefully sliding it sideways into position.

Despite the sharp, cold air trying to bite all of our faces off, the crowd was in high spirits as the great, blue beast over our heads lifted the great, gray construct over our heads.  I was surprised by how quiet Big Blue actually was.  I reckoned such a huge machine would produce a great deal of noise, but, I was mistaken.

Stepping the mast is an ancient ceremony enacted when a wooden sailing ship had its main mast put into place.  Coins of gold and silver, religious amulets, good luck charms, and other items of significance were placed under the mast as it was ‘stepped’ (lowered into place) as offerings to the gods of the sea for safety and luck.  Aircraft carrier construction honors this tradition by having the official party place ceremonial coins and other items of significance under the island right before it’s set on the deck.

Some of the ceremonial items placed under the island were a coin from the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65); a coin from USS Nimitz (CVN 68), lead ship of the previous class of carriers; and a block of stone from Ford’s native Michigan containing several coins commemorating his career.

Before you worry about the dignitaries placing their hands—even momentarily—under 550 metric tons of steel dangling from steel cables, don’t.  Big Blue set the island down on small blocks of steel to support its weight during the ‘stepping’ ceremony.  Once the coins and mementos were in place, the steel blocks were removed, and Big Blue set the island right into place.  That’s a freaking amazing level of precision for a machine whose operator is sitting more than 200 feet above the action!

Naming the Ford after President Ford further encouraged the growing historical reconsideration of his legacy.  His was an impossible task: restore faith and legitimacy to an elected office he had never been elected to.  This reassessment of her father’s legacy was one of Mrs. Ford’s themes during her speech, and you could see it in her eyes all day.

There was no dramatic clang! as the island finally met the flight deck; no powerful shockwaves rippling the hull as steel met steel.  Big Blue is so gentle that there wasn’t even a thud, thump, thrump, or bump.  The whole operation was so smooth that I think a martini glass would have stayed upright and full if one had been inside the island.  In some ways, it was an underwhelming conclusion to an overwhelming event!

The island is slowly lowered into place aboard the PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78),
Jan. 26, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / Released)

Construction delays due to the new technologies deployed aboard Ford meant the ship’s major construction was completed in 2013, but the ship wasn’t commissioned until 2017.  Ironically, most of her core crew would never see that ceremony; the delays were so great that most of them completed their entire tour of duty transferred before the ship ever put to sea.  Even so, they were, and always will be, the first active duty sailors to start bringing USS Gerald R. Ford to life.  (I myself had hoped to transfer to the Ford, but the delays holding her back took so long that I retired from the Navy instead!)

My part of the Ford’s story is a tiny one, and a relatively insignificant one compared to that core crew of sailors manning her.  However, that tiny, insignificant piece of the story is my piece, and I’m honored to have it.  In fact, my tiny piece of the story ended up on the Ford’s Wikipedia page.  One of my photos of the island on deck following the ceremony is displayed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Gerald_R._Ford#/media/File:USS_Gerald_R._Ford_island_installation_(130126-N-YX169-360).jpg).  Even better—they credited me by name along with the legally required “U.S. Navy photo”!

Check out my video of this event at: https://youtu.be/BbfOi11VTe4


The Jan. 26, 2013, configuration of the island superstructure to the hull of PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) marks the final part of major construction. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Nathanael Miller / RELEASED)

Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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