By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Liz Thompson, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) Public Affairs
Every morning at 8 o’clock, Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Nathan Beplate and his division prepare to make 10 runs of the advanced weapons elevators (AWE). They start with upper stage weapons elevator (USWE)-1 from the 02 level to the flight deck. Today he stands as the safety observer. He hears the phone talker make communication – everyone is in place. The flight deck is now ready to receive USWE-1.
There is one final check to verify nothing is in the way of the door platform.
Beplate, a native of Lewistown, Idaho assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department’s G-4 division, then yells, “Clear!”
The elevator door slides from left to right as it closes. A dull hum of the magnets is heard until the door’s closure.
Beplate is the G-4 division work center supervisor where the division works exclusively with the AWEs. He checked aboard Ford in November 2013 as a Seaman Recruit and his entire tour has been spent working on the AWEs earning him the moniker of Ford’s AWE enlisted subject matter expert.
“I have been invested in the advanced weapons elevators since 2013,” said Beplate. “I take pride in my work and the fact that we are now up and operational. It took a lot of work to get to where we are today.”
Ford’s AWEs are a first-of-its-kind system operated via electromagnetic, linear synchronous motors. This new technology increases both the speed and weapons carrying capacity of the platform while reducing required manning, maintenance, and total ownership costs.
The AWEs move up to 24,000 pounds of ordnance at 150 feet-per-minute – which contributes to a 33 percent increase in sortie generation rate compared to the legacy Nimitz-class carrier. Currently two of Ford’s 11 AWEs have been turned over to ship’s force and are operating as designed.
The turnover timeline consisted of an initial certification process, grooming phase, testing phase, final certification, then a turnover from Huntington Ingalls Industries – Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) to ship’s crew.
Once an AWE is turned over to the crew, Sailors must go through a training and qualification process and have personnel licensed before they can operate the elevators.
“The turnover was just the start for us,” said Beplate. “We have four PQSs (personnel qualification standards) for operator, safety observer, supervisor, and maintenance technician.”
Each PQS requires passing a written test and oral board before being issued a license.
The first Ford – and Navy – Sailor ever to be qualified and licensed to operate the AWEs was Lt. Donny James, the weapons engineering officer, from Albany, Georgia.
“I am proud of myself for being the first Sailor ever qualified on this cutting-edge technology,” said James. “But I was not looking for any acknowledgement. All of my guys have been working diligently to become qualified.”
Ford Sailors have been working to become qualified while running USWE-1 which was accepted and turned over to the ship’s force on December 21, 2018, and USWE-3 which was accepted and turned over on February 14, 2019.
“USWE-3 was turned over on my birthday,” said James. “This was a sense of accomplishment among us all and a great birthday present for me.”
With USWE-1 and USWE-3 turned over, 16 Ford Sailors are now fully qualified and licensed to operate either AWE, with an additional 34 Sailors working on their qualifications and licensure.
Daily operations of the AWEs allow Sailors to grow confidence in their proficiency with the systems and their operating capabilities. Their trial-and-error expertise not only helps them better anticipate and diagnose any technical issues that may arise, but also grants them the ability to create training methods and pave the way for how future Ford-class Sailors learn to operate AWEs.
“We don’t only rely on the PQS system, we get hands-on,” said James. “All of us work with NNS to do familiarization operations to learn the fundamentals routinely. Our crew has even begun to write the Navy Enlisted Classification qualification standard for the future AWE “C” school.”
Working to become qualified and licensed has become a friendly competition with many in the division as you must be licensed to operate the elevators.
“Within the division we have ‘go-getters’ who want personal success and to see AWE as a whole succeed,” said Chief Machinist’s Mate Franklin Pollydore, G-4 divisions leading chief petty officer (LCPO), from Georgetown, Guyana. “They compete to become qualified and even race to see who comes in first.”
As LCPO, Pollydore has assigned two individuals to each of the 11 AWEs. The goal is to work with NNS personnel to work the kinks out and assist in getting each elevator fully operational.
“Their level of enthusiasm and professionalism is unrivaled,” said Pollydore. “My guys are working tirelessly to succeed; they come in early, stay late, and even come in on their time off.”
All of their time spent working on the AWEs can make things personal for the Sailors of G-4.
“I have become the teacher, the mentor,” said Beplate. “I feel it is my responsibility to see everyone qualified before I leave because I took ownership of this. I will forever be a part of the crew who initially operated the AWEs, no other platform can say that.”
“My crew has given me the utmost confidence in our abilities,” said James. “I try to lead by example, but we have all claimed ownership in our elevators. We take our job personally and we continue to improve because we are the first with this knowledge. This is our thing. This is our baby.”
Gerald R. Ford is a first-in-class aircraft carrier and the first new aircraft carrier designed in more than 40 years. Ford is currently undergoing its post-shakedown availability at Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding.