ABOARD THE DESTROYER WILLIAM P. LAWRENCE — An ebullient mood permeated this newest warship of the Navy as it threaded the Pascagoula, Miss., shipping channel to return from three busy days of sea trials. Navy inspectors and Northrop Grumman engineers had put the ship and its systems through hundreds of tests to see what worked and what needed to be fixed and, while problems inevitably cropped up, most of those on board sensed that the ship had performed extraordinarily well.
To reflect that performance, Richard Schenk, Northrop’s head of tests and trials, ordered three brooms hoisted, signifying a proverbial “clean sweep” of the trials. The brooms flew at the port yardarm, alongside — probably for the last time on a new ship — the house flag of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.
The defense giant is shedding itself of its shipbuilding operations, and barring unforeseen developments, the company’s shipyards, including Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the Ingalls shipyard at Pascagoula, and the Avondale yard in New Orleans, will be spun off within a few weeks to become a separate corporate entity called Huntington-Ingalls Industries (HII).
Additionally, a number of factors conspired in 2010 to where, for the first time in many years, no new Navy ship contracts were awarded to the Northrop shipyards. The Navy and Northrop — or HII — hope to reach agreement soon on a contract to build the next destroyer, DDG 113, but once the Lawrence is delivered and sails this spring to its new homeport of San Diego, the sprawling Ingalls facility will not have a new destroyer under construction for the first time in years. The Lawrence is the 28th Arleigh Burke DDG 51-class destroyer to be built at the yard since 1989.
“This is the last DDG to be delivered for a while and this team has set the bar very high,” Schenk told the ship’s engineers, shipbuilders and crewmen as the ship returned to the Ingalls yard just after sunset on a chilly Jan. 21. “Thank you for your professionalism and teamwork.”
News that the ship had performed well on the trials was especially welcome at this Gulf Coast shipyard, which has been stung by criticism of its management and workmanship, particularly since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The San Antonio-class amphibious ships, built at Ingalls and Avondale, have borne the brunt of criticism for poor workmanship, but the destroyers have had problems as well.
Nevertheless, Navy officials on board for these trials spoke repeatedly of a pattern of improvement at Ingalls and in the destroyer program.
“Each ship they’ve delivered seems to have been better than the last,” Capt. Pete Lyle, DDG 51 program manager for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), said during a break at sea. “This is the best one yet, and it may be the best destroyer they’ve ever built.”
Both Ingalls and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine, the other shipyard that builds DDG 51-class destroyers, run a single “super trial” when taking the ships to sea for the first time. Most ship types undergo at least two sea trials — an engineering trial where the shipyard checks the ship and its equipment, and an acceptance trial where Navy officials determine whether the vessel is ready to be handed over from the builder — but the maturity of the long-running DDG 51 program allows those trials to be combined into a single event, usually taking the better part of three days.
In the Lawrence’s case, a number of trials were run while the ship was pierside at Ingalls. Among the more prominent pre-sea trials was a 50 percent power run, conducted to check the engineering plant and ensure that the main reduction gears — giant, meshing gears that connect the power transmitted from the ship’s four gas turbines to its two propeller shafts — are properly machined and aligned.
At Bath, the 50 percent power run is normally done at sea. The Ingalls yard has special bollards strong enough to hold the ship to the pier while the tests are run.
Aviation certifications were also issued before the ship left the pier, making flight operations possible during the sea trials, and the torpedo tubes tested.
Lawrence pulled away under its own power before dawn Jan. 19 and headed to sea with more than 500 people aboard, far more than the 279 crewmembers the ship will carry in Navy service. To accommodate the overflow, temporary berthing racks were added all over the ship, wherever extra space could be found. Fifty members of future commanding officer Cmdr. Tom Williams’ crew were aboard, primarily to run the weapons and combat systems for the tests. But the ship was operated by shipbuilders from Northrop Grumman, to whom the ship legally belongs until custody is transferred to the Navy.
Among the “riders” were engineers from the major subcontractors, including General Electric and Rolls-Royce engineers to deal with the engines, Lockheed Martin representatives for the Aegis combat system, and L-3 Communications for computer and electronics systems. Numerous NAVSEA representatives, including those from the program office and the Naval Surface Warfare Centers, were also on board, as well as members of the Supervisor of Shipbuilding at Pascagoula.
At the core of the Navy’s evaluation and assessment effort was the team from the Board of Inspection and Survey, or INSURV, who makes the recommendation on whether or not to accept the ship.
Just over an hour out of port the first problem emerged, but it was not with the Lawrence. A shipyard employee felt poorly and was judged to be suffering from a seizure. The ship slowed and a Coast Guard crew aboard a 41-footer out of Pascagoula came to take the patient back to a hospital, accompanied by a company medical technician. The Lawrence marked time until the technician could be retrieved. Once he was back aboard, the ship resumed its heading to the southeast, about two hours behind schedule. The patient recovered, and was sent home the next day.
Things quickly picked up as trials resumed. Once past the 100-fathom line, the ship began a four-hour full-power run, moving at just over 33 knots and kicking up an impressive “rooster tail” over the fantail. The INSURV team fanned out across the ship, checking fit and finish items. Shipyard workers were clearly excited to be back at sea, even as they put the destroyer through its paces.
“Sometimes we’re harder on the ship than they are,” said Jeff Feinberg, the shipyard’s trials coordinator up on the bridge.
Overhead, a number of aircraft came out to assist with tests. A contractor-operated Beechcraft 300 flew out to test the ship’s tactical air navigation system. Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the Pukin’ Dogs of Strike Fighter Squadron 143 — the unit of namesake aviator William P. Lawrence — flew out to check the ship’s combat system and electronic warfare system, as did an E-2C from the Bluetails of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121.
Before dinner was over, the word was passed over the 1MC — the ship’s announcing system — to “stand by for heavy rolls,” and the Lawrence went through a series of full power maneuvers, swerving from left to right and back again. Gear that wasn’t tied down or stowed fell over or rolled to the deck, and on the mess decks, willing arms reached out to hold cups, plates and condiments.
Then came a “crash back” test, going from full ahead to full astern in one motion. Under a full moon, the Lawrence kept up a steady speed of between 12 and 13 knots astern, white water crashing onto the flight deck aft.
Weapons trials were the main feature of the second day at sea. The ship’s five-inch/62 caliber gun shot off 24 rounds, and two SM-2 surface-to-air missiles were fired from the vertical launch system and engaged two target drones. The ship’s chaff launchers successfully launched dummy rounds, but a minor hitch developed in shooting the 20mm close-in weapon system. After a few technical tweaks, the firing was successfully carried out the next day.
Other system tests included the ship’s Prairie Masker water noise suppression system; multiple noise surveys throughout the ship; engine, shaft and hull vibration surveys; Aegis radar tracking; darkened ship surveys; telemetry and digital compass checks; and tests of the damage control systems and the countermeasures washdown system. Most of the tests were conducted without major incident.
A test of the ship’s anchor handling system provoked perhaps the most significant discussion of the trials. After a new brand of windlass wildcat was installed beginning with DDG 103, problems have been experienced making the wildcat’s teeth mesh properly with the links in the anchor chain to ensure a good grip as the anchor is lowered or raised. Northrop’s engineers think they’ve solved the problem by changing the angle at which the chain feeds on to the wildcat, and the Navy DDG 51 program and Supervisor of Shipbuilding (SUPSHIPS) officials agreed, adding that the problem diminishes as the chain and wildcat settle into use. Nevertheless, an INSURV inspector issued a “star card” on the system — indicating a serious problem that must be fixed before the Navy accepts the ship is accepted by the Navy. The inspector felt the fix needed more thorough testing before being accepted.
SUPSHIPS and the program office thought the problem wasn’t that serious, and prepared to argue the case. The outcome is unknown, as a week after the ship returned to port, the final INSURV report had yet to be issued.
Still, Lyle was philosophical.
“If that’s the biggest problem we have on these trials, that’s a pretty good sea trial,” he said.
As the ship returned to Pascagoula and the riders filed off, many were aware it might be the end of an era. Bill McLaughlin, a member of the Navy’s Aegis Test Team at Pascagoula since 1981, lamented the breakup of his crew and the potential loss of expertise.
“That talent needs to be retained until DDG 113,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to keep it together.”
The success of the Lawrence’s sea trials set a strong example for the future of the Ingalls shipyard, Lyle said: “This will set a really good foundation for that spinoff, whenever that happens.”