The carrier Gerald R. Ford is seen July 11 under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. Navy and shipyard officials placed a time capsule of mementos aboard the ship. (Steve Helber / AP)
Capt. John Meier, commanding officer of the Gerald R. Ford, gestures July 11 as he speaks to the media on the flight deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. (Steve Helber / AP)
NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — In the corner of a small room aboard what will be one of the Navy's largest ships, an unassuming plaque a few inches above the floor is the only clue that an ancient maritime tradition is being carried out on the next generation of U.S. aircraft carriers.
For centuries, shipbuilders have placed coins underneath the wooden masts of their ships. But with ships built of steel, the Navy has had to improvise to keep the tradition alive. In January, it placed some coins and other items underneath the island, a structure containing the flight command center, of the USS Gerald R. Ford as the 555-metric ton assembly was placed on the future nuclear-powered aircraft carrier's flight deck with a giant crane.
That crushed the mementos and kept with tradition, but it also kept shipbuilders from being able to weld the island onto the ship. So as planned, ship workers lifted the island again, allowing the mementos to be moved and saved.
On Thursday, they put Navy coins, the aviator wings of the ship's first commanding officer and sandstone used to build the White House and U.S. Capitol into a time capsule that was welded into what will be ship's flight deck room. While flattened, all of the commemorative items but the sandstone were largely still intact.
The plaque says not to open the time capsule until the carrier's mid-life refueling and overhaul, about 25 years after it begins service.
"On a personal note, it really drove home the fact that I was going to have the privilege of being the first commanding officer of this ship," said Capt. John Meier. "A piece of me is always going to be a part of this ship."
The plaque doesn't say what items are in the time capsule, but Newport News Shipbuilding provided a detailed list. In addition to Meier's aviator wings, the Navy's contribution includes coins from the USS Enterprise and the USS Nimitz. The Enterprise was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and will be the ship the Ford replaces when it is delivered to the Navy in 2015. The USS Nimitz was the first ship in her class of 10 carriers.
The Ford will also be the first ship in its class. The Ford class aircraft carrier features a new nuclear power plant, a smaller redesigned island, electromagnetic catapults, improved weapons movement and an enhanced flight deck.
The island has also been pushed further back on the ship than in previous aircraft carriers. Meier said the ship redesign will enable crews to load weapons and fuel onto jets much faster, using a process similar to what NASCAR uses.
The Ford has been designed to require 800 fewer sailors in the crew and 400 fewer personnel in the air wing. Having fewer sailors onboard will save the Navy about $5 billion in personnel costs over the ship's 50-year-lifespan.
Rolf Bartschi, Newport News Shipbuilding's vice president of carrier construction for the Ford, said the company and the Navy originally had hoped to have the ship ready for christening this month. Instead, that's been pushed back to November.
Structurally, the ship is already complete, but there's still plenty of work to do on the inside. Cables, wires and other electrical equipment still must be installed, among other things.
The company chose Thursday to weld the time capsule into the Ford in advance of what would be former President Ford's 100th birthday on Sunday. Some of the crew and shipbuilders plan to travel to Grand Rapids, Mich. for a wreath laying ceremony, where they'll also present a model of the ship to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
The sandstone included in the time capsule was chosen by the ship's sponsor, Susan Ford Bales, to honor her father. She had five official seals embedded into the sandstone to honor her father's public service. They include the presidential and vice presidential seals and the seal of the U.S. House of Representatives. The other two seals are the Navy Lt. Commander seal and the U.S. Navy seal in tribute of Ford's World War II service.