NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Five years since USS Gerald R. Ford’s commissioning, the electromagnetic aircraft launch system’s success is under the microscope as the strike group undergoes its final certification ahead of world-wide deployment.

The Ford is undergoing the Composite Training Unit Exercise, a battery of testing and training across every specialty within its strike group. For the first time since its commissioning, the Ford is operating with a full air wing. It must earn its Blue Water Certification, making the unit operable without a land-based divert.

EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) replaced the steam-powered launch systems used by the older Nimitz-class carrier. The Navy touts that EMALS’ launch and recover aircraft is 30% more efficient than steam and is gentler on aircrafts, thus reducing maintenance. The system also uses far less real estate onboard the carrier.

“They way we launch is just slightly different than we would launch on the steam catapult,” said Lt. Ian Loomis, a catapult officer. “Just the timing and whatnot.”

The efficiency of the system came under fire after initial tests led to frequent launch failures. According to a Congressional Research Service report released in December 2022, the reliability requirement of EMALS was “well below” requirements.

“The reliability concerns are amplified by the fact that the crew cannot readily
electrically isolate EMALS components during flight operations because of the shared
nature of the Energy Storage Groups and Power Conversion Subsystem inverters on board
CVN 78,” the report cites.

Crew members we spoke to are resolved to push EMALS to exceed the efficiency of the Nimitz.

“The catapult system is capable of doing what we need to do,” Loomis said. “It’s just the way we do it on board here is a little different than the way we do it on steam and its because we use electromagnetics.”

Loomis added that the crew is constantly developing new standard operating procedures for the flight deck.

Pilot Lt. R. Lee Watkins is Department Head of the Strike Fighter Squadron 31. He said that very little changes for pilots switching to EMALS.

“The catapult acceleration profile feels a little different but other than that everything in the cockpit is the same,” Watkins said.

He says Nimitz-class carriers have one clear edge over the nascent Ford class: decades of experience.

“The main operational difference is the Nimitz class has decades of experience operating those systems,” Watkins said. “And all the kinks are kind of worked out. The Ford is still working through some of those things, so not quite as efficient with the aircraft launch and recovery.”

The Ford’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, is adamant that the EMALS works.

“I strap myself into that airplane. I put my life on the line,” he said. “It works great.”

As many remain skeptical about the Ford’s lengthy delivery, testing, and certification periods, Lanzilotta said that the myriad of new technologies has taken time to integrate with the ship.

“The Gerald R. Ford the ship you’re standing on right now is filled with a bunch of new technologies that were all bundled into one class. As part of that development we have to make sure that all of those technologies are put through their paces,” he said. “When you have a new very advanced  technology like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system for example, you have to integrate that into a system of systems. That takes a lot of work.”

Sailors discuss ship life

Sailors aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford discussed life aboard the ship, one saying it was tough being away from home for so long. Bernard Glover Jr. said he has the best job on the ship, being on the flight deck. Danny Huntsberry said he joined to help his family, while also helping build a better life for himself and to see the world.

Bernard Glover Jr.

Danny Huntsberry