Last Preps For The Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford

NEWPORT NEWS — Framed by patriotic bunting and surrounded by a few thousand chairs, the Navy's newest aircraft carrier is ready for its close-up.

Sailors in dress blues and hard hatted workers from Newport News Shipbuilding swarmed Dry Dock 12 Friday to complete preparations for the christening of the Gerald R. Ford, the first in a new class of aircraft carrier that will herald a new age of naval warfare.

Susan Ford Bales, the former president's daughter, will do the honors by breaking a bottle of American sparkling wine across the ship's bow. Speakers include Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee from Ford's home state of Michigan.

Some 20,000 ticket-holders are expected to crowd the shipyard to witness naval history. The ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m. and will be webcast, is a signature event for the city of Newport News, home to the only U.S. shipyard that builds nuclear-powered flattops, the centerpiece of American military might around the globe.

The pomp and joy of the christening will take place against the backdrop of budget uncertainty in Washington, as some question whether the U.S. should reduce its carrier fleet to cope with oncoming spending cuts. That debate will play out in the coming months and perhaps longer, as Congress struggles to reach a long-term spending deal.

But for the moment, the Navy and the shipyard get to have some fun, celebrating years of work in front of a crowd ranging from a former U.S. vice president to dozens of Boy Scouts from Hampton Roads and beyond.

'Takes a little while'

The challenges of building a new class of carrier have been well documented. The christening had been scheduled for July, but was delayed. The ship's budget will exceed forecasts by nearly 25 percent.

Kevin Stewart has a more personal perspective.

The pipe fitter from Mathews County has his fingerprints all over the new ship, and on Friday he relaxed in a chair to consider the effort it has taken to get this far.

"It's a new class, so a lot of design changes," he said. "It takes a little while to work out all the kinks. As it's progressed, it looks a lot better."

For example, new valves for the Ford weren't ready in time, so workers installed spool pieces where the valves should go. When the valves arrived, they had to go back, pull out the spool pieces and put in the valves.

"That was a big thing with us," he said. "It just made it a little more work."

Stewart is far more excited about his role in Saturday's ceremony. He and Gerald Barnes, a welder, will escort the daughters of Ford Bales to the ceremony. Both Stewart and Barnes have worked at the shipyard for 37 years.

"It's unbelievable," Barnes said.

"That's a career highlight right there – a lifetime highlight really," said Stewart.

'Really want to do this'

Ford was the only man who served as vice president and president without being elected to either office. A solid lawmaker from Michigan known for his honesty, he was considered the right choice when scandal forced Vice President Spiro Agnew from office, followed by President Richard Nixon.

Three notable members of his administration will attend the ceremony. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger served under Nixon and stayed to advise Ford. Donald Rumsfeld served as chief of staff under Ford and later became his defense secretary. Rumsfeld returned to that job under former President George W. Bush to lead the U.S. response after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Dick Cheney served as chief of staff under Ford in 1976 and, like Rumsfeld, became better known later in his career, as Bush's vice president.