Ship Shape

What took eight years and $6.2 billion to build, towers 20 stories above the waterline and is home to 6,000 people for six months at a time? It’s the USS George H.W. Bush.

Ten years since it left port, we take a look back at our story on the USS George H.W. Bush, the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier constructed in Newport News.


Some towns have a skyline of buttoned-down office towers and glitzy hotels. Others are defined by open spaces and grain silos. But in Newport News, the first rays of sunlight twinkle and play against the latticework skeletons of the city’s corps of looming cranes.

Here, set along the wide but placid James River, one finds the crown jewel of Northrop Grumman’s ship fabrication facilities, perhaps better known by its former name: Newport News Shipbuilding. With some about 19,000 employees, the site secures Northrop Grumman’s place as Virginia’s largest industrial employer. Detroit may be synonymous with cars, Silicon Valley with information technology. But what emerges from Newport News is some of the most iconic construction projects in the world. Here, spread along two miles of the James, is where aircraft carriers are born. From these waters, 30 carriers have sailed to sea. The CVN 77, USS George H.W. Bush, left the dock in 2006.

Forged from 47,000 tons of steel, towering 20 stories above the waterline, displacing nearly 100,000 tons, boasting a 4.5-acre flight deck, and built at a cost of $6.2 billion, the Bush is the 10th and final sibling of the venerable Nimitz-class of supercarriers.

Bringing it to life was no small feat. Another big construction project, the Empire State Building (which is only slightly taller than the Bush is long), required 7 million man-hours of work. By comparison, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding’s latest vessel required 45 million hours of labor. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the most complicated product out there, but it may be the largest really complicated project [in the world],” says Dru Branche, director of construction for the CVN 77 (Bush) program.

Building some of the largest moveable objects in history requires, for starters, a lot of space. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding (NGSB) has plenty of that. The shipyard occupies 550 acres in Newport News, an atelier so big that workers ride bicycles to and from job sites; hundreds of faded yellow beach cruisers with lazy 1950s handlebars lie strewn about the grounds, free for anyone to pick up and pedal.

The world has lots of large industrial projects—think oil refineries, aircraft assembly plants, the state of New Jersey. But arguably none—not the Airbus A380 nor a nuclear power plant nor even the space shuttle—quite matches the unique challenges of building, mostly outside, something as massive and as technologically advanced as an aircraft carrier. The Bush borrows from commercial ship technologies, but it is a military-grade product—designed to go whenever and wherever the call of duty takes it.

To get a sense of the vast scope of a carrier construction project, think about constructing, all at once, a giant ship and an airport and a fortress and a nuclear power plant and a city containing everything from a hospital to a bakery. All these components are bolted together to form a chimera that does better than 30 knots on the open seas and is expected to be operational for about 50 years. “It’s a very complex project,” understates Stephen Barresi, director of engineering for NGSB. “You’re trying to accommodate everything from medical needs to food services to storing fuel for aircraft to running a nuclear power plant. It’s quite a challenge to keep all that going and integrated and done on time.”

 While other ships are built to exacting specifications, almost everything on a carrier must be tested and approved by the Navy for wartime functionality. The Bush has, for example, more than 20,000 overhead light fixtures; install inefficient ones, and they could drain power from the all-important combat systems. A pump that reverberates too loudly might alert a prowling sub. And the Bush, like all carriers, must endure a continuous barrage of 15-ton combat jets slamming into it at better than 150 miles per hour.

A carrier project brings together tens of thousands of workers, many of whom work for major outside component manufacturers. Rolls-Royce, the venerable British company, made the ship’s four bronze propellers—each 21 feet in diameter and weighing 60,000 pounds. Together, they produce 280,000 horsepower. Curtiss-Wright built critical valves for the propulsion system.

In addition, the shipyard employs a phalanx of subcontractors and specialized workers of every stripe—engineers and electricians, welders and plumbers, pipe-fitters and painters, to name a few. And they work outside in the elements. If it’s hot, your boots sizzle on steel; if it’s cold on the exposed waterfront, your fingers freeze. “It is dangerous work,” said NGSB President Mike Petters at the commissioning ceremony for the Bush, “difficult and demanding work … noble work.” Adds Dave Brookman, NGSB’s construction superintendent for combat systems, “It’s a hard business.”  

In most places, they simply can’t do it. Aside from the United States, only a handful of countries in the world have carriers (depending on how one defines “aircraft carrier”)—and experts say that none are as sophisticated as Uncle Sam’s flattops. The French have built one nuclear carrier, and Russia apparently has plans to do the same. Few nations have the comprehensive experience and expertise needed to build carriers, and they certainly don’t have America’s half-a-trillion-dollar defense budget, which dwarfs the next 20 countries’ budgets combined.  

Being first always helps—and the shipyard at Newport News has a deep heritage. According to NGSB, in 1882 railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington had established the successful Chesapeake & Ohio railroad to transfer coal from the Ohio Valley to its eastern terminus at Newport News. He then decided to build a shipyard to repair ships servicing his burgeoning transportation hub. The new facility was first known as the Chesapeake Dry Dock & Construction Company, chartered in 1886. In 1891, what was then called Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) delivered its first ship, a tugboat named Dorothy. By 1897, NNS had built three warships for the U.S. Navy—Nashville, Wilmington and Helena. Ownership of the shipyard stayed with the Huntington family until 1968, when it was acquired by the industrial conglomerate Tenneco. In 1996, Tenneco spun off the shipyard as an independent public company, and it remained so until its acquisition by Northrop Grumman in 2001.

Today, NGSB-made carriers are arguably the most important assets in the United States Navy. Even with all the grinding outdoor labor, the yard’s workers are tremendously proud of that fact. “Not a whole lot of people get to do what we do each day,” says Brookman of the one-of-a-kind atmosphere at the shipyard. Originally from southwest Virginia, he headed to the coast in 1973, looking for work. More than three decades later, he’s still in Newport News, having worked on all 10 of the Nimitz carriers. “Everyone back home knows that I work at Newport News shipyard. That’s probably why I stayed, because it’s unique and it’s interesting.”

Indeed, visit the shipyard and there is an air of longevity about the place—and not simply because the products have a half-century lifespan. There is a sense of endurance among the workers, too, many of whom are third- or fourth-generation employees. More than 500 NGSB employees have 40 or more years of experience at the shipyard.

Even with a veteran cadre of employees, the workforce can get rusty. The yard turned out 12 carriers between 1940 and 1946, a World War II-driven surge, and produced one carrier every 3.4 years between 1954 and 2001. Since then, the pace has slowed to about one every five years in today’s post-Cold War world. The lengthening gap between carrier projects can affect productivity. The Bush was a few months late getting finished partly because, says Scott Stabler, vice president for the shipyard’s Bush program, a certain amount of the yard’s “institutional knowledge” has been lost owing to the slower pace—and hence “some degree of relearning” must take place with each new carrier.  

It takes almost a decade to build an aircraft carrier. A preliminary contract for the Bush was awarded in 1998, with the principal contract following in 2001. More than two-and-a-half years later, the keel—the main, central piece of the bottom of the ship—was laid. As with all carriers, the Bush’s construction time line allowed lengthy periods for design, planning and purchasing the vast quantity of materials that went into the vessel.

Even when it seems like the gargantuan ship is finished, there is typically tons more work to be done—months of testing and troubleshooting as the ship’s crew gets acclimated to their new home. The bow of the Bush was christened by the shattering of a bottle of bubbly in the fall of 2006, but it would be another two-plus years before the commissioning ceremony signifying that the ship could take its official name, USS George H.W. Bush. And even then, the process wasn’t complete. There were two sets of “builder’s sea trials” in the winter of 2009 that would have to be completed successfully before the U.S. Navy officially accepted ownership of the ship. It’s only then that the carrier joins the fleet and is ready for “operational deployment.” As Brookman quips, “It’s not like driving a car off a lot.”

Although the shipyard strives to maintain its technical expertise, doing so is tougher than one might assume, because aircraft carriers are in an almost constant state of change and improvement. After all, construction of the class’ namesake, the USS Nimitz, began in the 1960s. “With the Nimitz class, there has been an evolving design,” says Stabler. “They are not 10 of a kind. And particularly with the last two ships, we saw a fair amount of design change in them—many more engineering hours invested, many more changes [to improve] life-cycle costs and to improve military capability.”

Indeed, he says, the next class of aircraft carrier, commencing with CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford, will be “radically different” from the Nimitz class. “They’ll look the same from the exterior,” says Stabler, “but a lot of the services and capabilities will be electrically driven, not steam- or hydraulic-driven.” The Gerald R. Ford is now under construction in Newport News, with a 2015 target delivery. NGSB officials say that the Ford will get a dramatic makeover, including a revamped flight deck, more sophisticated weapons handling systems, a new nuclear power plant. In addition, it will have a redesigned “island”—the command and control tower that juts up from the expansive deck.

When conceiving the Bush, the Navy started with a list of some 1,000 modifications it wanted to make from its previous carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan. Some were planned to take advantage of various, incremental technological advancements (in electronics, communications, propulsion); others were more basic design and operational upgrades gleaned from the Navy’s experience with older carriers. Among the differences in the Bush, for example, were a new blade design for the propellers and a different layout for the galleys (there are seven). The Bush also got a more environmentally friendly, vacuum-based waste system, like those on cruise ships and airplanes.

Each proposed change is subjected to cost-benefit analysis by NGSB. How much will it cost? How long will it take to complete the fix? Does the change enhance the ship’s military capability? In the end, the Navy and NGSB agreed that about 350 changes were essential and worth making on the Bush—and then it was back to the drawing board. A typical Nimitz-class carrier has roughly 11,000 sets of drawings—structural, mechanical, electrical, outfitting, piping and ventilation, not counting those for the nuclear plants—and each set might consist of hundreds of pages of specifications and blueprints.

The drawings eventually manifest themselves in individual parts—millions of them—that gradually become larger components as pieces move into the yard and are put together like Legos. The hull alone contains some 700,000 structural pieces. The components become sections, and after more melding, the sections become larger and larger until they become Tetris-like units known as “superlifts.” Any one superlift can weigh hundreds of tons. The Bush is the product of 161 superlifts welded together to form the upper and lower bow units, the stern and the island. Assembling a ship in this fashion is like building a few department stores, a food court and a variety of smaller retail shops, then physically picking them up and affixing them to one another to create a shopping mall.

The hallmark of the Northrop Grumman shipyard, and a symbol of Newport News itself, is the main crane. Known as Big Blue, it’s the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The mechanized muscleman towers 230 feet over the dry dock and can cover an area of 22 acres. With its taut tentacles of 8-inch steel, the enormous gantry crane can lift, at one time, the equivalent of four 747 airplanes. Once the Bush’s island unit was built, Big Blue hoisted it up and onto the carrier as one 708-ton unit.

While Big Blue and its weighty cargo can mesmerize bystanders and shipyard veterans alike, a carrier project is not just about superlifts and enormous pieces of steel. There are also countless other vital components that perhaps can’t be appreciated unless you live and work on one of these hulking ships. The Bush, for example, contains 8 million feet of copper cable and more than a million feet of fiber optic wire, which together constitute portions of the ship’s electronic infrastructure. NGSB must also make thousands of little decisions—such as what type of door handles to use in different parts of the ship. “We go down to defining wallpaper, defining tile [for the] berthing spaces,” says Barresi.

Think your daily “to do” list is daunting? According to Branche, between welding, painting, wiring and other duties, the Bush crew worked on roughly 800 projects every day. All are crucial because they are all interrelated: If one project falls behind, it triggers an avalanche of delays. In the end, it is the steady agglomeration of hard labor that produces the ship. “People have to be thinking about more than just their little piece of it,” says Branche. “It’s the integration of competing objectives, which come into harmony, that really [makes the ship]. I can be the guy putting the elevator together, and I say, ‘I want my elevator to do all these things,’ but if the electrical system that runs my elevator has such a powerful electrical fingerprint that, when I push the ‘up’ button, it starts popping toast out in the galley because of electromagnetic interference, I haven’t accomplished my objective. And so you always have to be thinking beyond just your little piece of the puzzle … to what happens next. It’s just a really complicated dance.”

It is, thus, little wonder that the employees of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding—and by, extension, the town that surrounds the site—have a special relationship with their carriers and with the military men and women for whom they are built. For one thing, once completed, aircraft carriers will be sent off on missions deemed vital to U.S. security—a purpose that invests every carrier project with much symbolic and patriotic weight.

Beyond that, during the last stages of construction, some of the carrier’s Navy crew lives and works aboard the vessel, interacting with the workers. As a result, Branche calls carrier work “less anonymous” than other major assembly jobs. “If I’m on the line building cars, I don’t know who that car will go to. It isn’t the same as if I meet you and I’m building that car for you.” There is, then, a filial loyalty between the ship’s builders and those who will operate it in harm’s way.

The sense of mission gives the ship its soul and is one reason the workers refer to her instead of it. Also, there’s the responsibility of building something for a former president who will have his name stamped on it; George H.W. Bush, a former carrier pilot, has been a frequent visitor to the site, glad-handing the troops—workers and Navy personnel alike.

Perhaps more than anything, after the ship has gone to sea for the first time, the many thousands of workers who labored on the project saw the ship for what it has become: a national asset. “You think about a guy who’s been working here 30 years, and tonight he goes home and he’s watching news reporting on Iraq, Afghanistan, what have you,” says Branche. “The picture flashes to the carrier in the gulf, and he can nudge his wife and say, ‘Hey, I worked on that!’” That’s a boatload of satisfaction: One enormous, complex vessel that stretches the mind and mettle of men.

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