March 23, 2020 – “Man all flight quarters stations!” These words were heard across every space on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) last week as she prepared to launch “cat” and recover “trap” aircraft from Carrier Air Wing EIGHT (CVW 8), in order to complete Flight Deck Certification (FDC) and Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) Certification, Mar. 20.
Conducting flight operations is the key role of every aircraft carrier in support of the Navy’s mission to deter aggression and maintain freedom of the seas.
In order to certify Ford’s flight deck and carrier air traffic control center, the ship was required to complete a Precision Approach Landing Systems (PALS) certification, and conduct two consecutive days of flight operations with 50 day traps on day one, followed by 70 day traps and 40 night traps on day two. Together, the crews of Ford and CVW 8 exceeded those minimum requirements.
Over a two-day period, F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets from four squadrons assigned to CVW 8 conducted 123 day, and 42 night cats and traps aboard Ford to reach this milestone in Ford’s operational readiness.
“Our Sailors performed at a level that was on par with a forward deployed aircraft carrier, and this was a direct result of the hard core training and deployment ready mentality we have pushed every day for the past year,” said Capt. J. J. Cummings, Ford’s commanding officer. “Our team put their game faces on, stepped into the batter’s box and smashed line drives out of the park. It was fun to watch.”
Prior to FDC and CATCC certification, Ford received its PALS Mode IA and Mode II certification from Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD). PALS, through the assistance of air traffic controllers in CATCC, aids pilots as they execute night or bad weather landings, guiding pilots to a good starting position for approaches; and is a requirement for ships to conduct flight operations.
“PALS cert was a critical step to achieving our flight deck certification,” said Cmdr. Phil Brown, Ford’s air operations officer. “Our system performed really well during our approaches, and provided a solid level of confidence to NAWCAD in our ability to recover jets.”
The Ford CATCC team was not only essential to FDC, but was also required to complete a certification in concert with the flight deck certification.
Ford’s CATCC certification was the culmination of a three-phase process that began in October 2019 at the Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC) in Pensacola, Florida. Since then, NATTC instructors have been alongside Ford Sailors for every phase, testing their practical knowledge, reviewing their checklists, and observing their recovery operations.
According to Chief Air Traffic Controller Lavese McCray, Ford’s OC Division leading chief petty officer, the NATTC CATCC team trainer was an essential factor to Ford’s success.
“We had no rust to knock off,” said McCray. “We’ve tested and trained for so many operations that it made the [certification] scenarios look easy.”
The case III recovery scenario Ford completed during certification required aircraft to be stacked up behind the ship in 2 mile increments, in order to land on the flight deck every minute, a challenging task required of deployment-ready aircraft carriers. Ford was able to trap aircraft 55 seconds apart.
In its certification letter, Commander Naval Air Forces Atlantic (CNAL) inspectors provided shout-outs to the Sailors who performed exceptionally well during the certification.
“It was very apparent the entire CATCC team put forth a great deal of effort preparing for their CATCC certification,” the letter stated. “All CATCC functional areas were outstanding. Additionally, the leadership and expertise exhibited by the Air Operations Officer and his staff were extremely evident throughout the course of the entire week.”
Air Traffic Controller First Class Scott Torres, Ford’s CATCC chief, was recognized in the certification letter for his accomplishments, and shared the credit with his teammates in air department, noting that the certification was a group effort.
“Our success was a testament to air department, and their ability to quickly move aircraft from catapults to arrestments,” said Torres. “The cert is about safety and efficiency, and their efficiency was really high.”
The human element critical to FDC is the relationship between ship’s company and the air wing in the “black top ballet” of flight deck operations. During hours-long evolutions, the teams work together to communicate pilots’ status, their requirements, and provide them services.
CNAL’s Handler evaluated how well the teams were able to work together to taxi and park aircraft on the flight deck, and to stack them up behind catapults for take-off. According to Capt. Joshua Sager, CVW 8 commander, and the first pilot to land onboard Ford to commence FDC on day one, the crews of Ford and CVW 8 worked together seamlessly.
“From the controllers and flight deck crews, to the catapult and arresting gear teams, this ship demonstrated a level of professional competence that rivals any of her peers,” said Sager. “I truly look forward to further air wing integration in the coming at-sea periods.”
Lt. Cmdr. Rodney King, Ford’s Handler, credited the crew’s smooth operations to the training they conducted leading up to certification.
“You’re only as good as your last move,” said King. “You have to stay two steps ahead of the briefed plan, and we did a lot of training, so I had no doubt they’d be successful.”
The completion of FDC and CATCC certification marks another first for Ford. She is now ready to give back to the fleet, as the only carrier qualification asset regularly available on the east coast this year.
“Over the past two days, the Ford and Carrier Air Wing EIGHT teams made incredible strides forward for the Naval Aviation Enterprise,” concluded Sager. “Flying night sorties aboard the Ford felt exactly the same as previous experiences I’ve had while deployed on seasoned Nimitz-class carriers, and I’m so proud to have been a part of the flight deck certification of Ford.”