NEWPORT NEWS - Electromagnetic catapults and a soaring $13 billion price tag get most headlines, but it is a variety of creature comforts and convenience that are making the Navy's next super carrier a hit with its crew.

The future aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford boasts amenities like smaller berthing’s, tricked out gyms and loaded lounges, plus many design changes like wider passageways that make the ship more livable.

"I've never seen a p-way that wide," said Damage Control man 2nd Class Mario Covington, one of the nearly 1,000 members of the pre-commissioning crew to report for duty. "Usually, we have about 12 guys struggling with each other to get in their [firefighting ensemble]. But here you can get dressed out and have someone inspect you with enough space for others to enter and exit the area. Big difference. Huge difference."

Launched in November 2013, the ship is coming to life. The crew had accepted 675 of 2,700 spaces from shipbuilders, as of the end of September, a tally that grows by about 25 a week. Sailors are scheduled to start moving aboard in 2015, with sea trials a year later.

Navy Times recently spent a day with the Ford's builders, leaders and crew to get their thoughts on life aboard the next-generation flattop. While the Ford still has many hurdles to surpass before its 2016 sea trials, the crew gave their ship high marks, with some saying the smaller berthing’s and shorter chow lines meant that sailors could live more like chiefs.

Among the amenities the plankowners were talking about:

  • Smaller berthing. Gone are the huge, 180-man berthing’s common on Nimitz-class carriers. They've been replaced by 40-man or smaller berthing’s to reduce noise and distractions.
  • Better gyms. The Ford features three huge gyms to accommodate weight lifting, cardio exercises, even boxing.
  • Cooler spaces. More air-conditioning and vastly reduced steam piping will make the Ford's engineering spaces the coolest in the flattop fleet.
  • Redesigned flight deck. Larger elevators and re-positioned fueling and arming spots are expected to increase sorties by 25 percent.

Better berthing’s

Systems that reduce crew workload have allowed the ship's company to total only 2,600 sailors, about 600 fewer than a Nimitz-class flattop.

But it's not just a smaller crew. Officials promise all of the enlisted berthing’s will be smaller.

The massive, 180-man berthing areas on the Nimitz-class are replaced by something similar to chiefs' berthing, which typically number about 40 racks per berthing. Officials say these smaller berthing’s are quieter and the layout will require less foot traffic through other spaces, as is common in some Nimitz-class berthing’s.

Aviation Ordnance man 2nd Class (AW) James Henderson, who has served on the carrier George Washington, said he likes the Ford's berthing locations.

"On the GW, we were under the mess decks and would hear foot travel every time there was chow," Henderson said.

The racks are typically stacked three high, with one locker per person and extra lockers for those without storage space under their rack. The berthing’s, however, do not feature "sit-up" racks with more headroom, which are installed on San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks.

Sailors won't have to trudge down the p-way anymore to get a shower. Each berthing has an associated head, including showers, toilets and sinks.

"This is fantastic," said Engineman 2nd Class (SW) Heather Pierce. "On [the Theodore] Roosevelt, we had to get dressed just to get to the head and get dressed to get back to the berthing. You practically had to take a bag with you just to get a shower. Not here."

The carrier was built to be gender-neutral, so berthing’s could be readily switched from male to female to accommodate crew changes. As such, it lacks urinals.

The Ford also uses a vacuum-powered septic system, similar to that aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush, which was plagued with toilet outages on its maiden deployment. It remains to be seen whether similar issues will rear their ugly head.

Mess decks

Chow lines that jam the p-ways and begin somewhere in the hangar bay are no more, officials promise. The mess decks have been re-designed to cut down on long lines in the ship's main port and starboard arteries. And speaking of arteries, there is no deep fat fryer, as the Navy continues its push to provide healthier food choices — and hinder greasy cooking.

The galley is centrally located with a hub-and-spoke design that provides three entry points. The salad bar and drink stations are in nearby compartments to keep everything moving. And everyone gets the same food — sailors, chiefs and officers.

Sailors will find the chapel and store in quieter areas of the ship, one deck beneath the mess deck. The chapel is located at the forward end and the ship's store at the aft end. This is especially beneficial for the chapel, which traditionally has been located on the 03 level directly beneath the noisy catapults.

Work spaces

Officials say most work spaces will be improved.

For starters, just about all of them are air-conditioned or just cooler. The hot steam pipes that run through Nimitz-class flattops and other big decks are gone, as systems outside the reactors are powered by electricity instead of steam.

"Being on a Nimitz-class carrier in the propulsion plant in the middle of the [Persian] Gulf, it is over 100 degrees with a lack of humidity," Engineman 1st Class (SW/AW) Ryan Rivera said. "This will be a lot more comfortable for us standing watch because it will be closer to 80 degrees. I'm definitely looking forward to that and to the fact that there will be fewer watch standers."

The nine air-conditioning plants have multiple redundancies built in. And the ventilation system uses flex hoses to balance the distribution of air inside each space. No more of those arctic blasts that freeze one corner of a compartment.

Another plus: Elevators are large enough to handle entire pallets. This means all-day unreps are a thing of the past. And there is no weapon staging on the mess decks — good news for anyone who has ever been turned away during a weapons move.

Part of the Ford's layout allows for flexibility. The Ford has 19 do-it-yourself bays, where each room can be transformed into an office, ready room, humanitarian staging area or medical ward with little effort.

Sailors can quickly move consoles, lights and bulkheads to subdivide the room as they see fit, and do so without welding and cutting. A ventilation system under the deck tile even allows you to move computers and other gear that need airflow.

The Nimitz-class carriers are back fitting a few spaces during their refueling overhauls, but the Ford class features the flex-deck design.

"My only complaint is that we only have 19 spaces," Meier said. "If it was up to me we would have 200 spaces. The stuff is fantastic."

Flight deck revamp

The crew is also enthusiastic about layout changes that will make their jobs easier.

The Ford is built with damage control in mind. Firefighting ensembles and gear is stored in larger repair lockers that have entrance and exit doors, eliminating the bottlenecks and collisions as sailors rush in and out during drills. Wider passageways also reduce the size of the gaggles as sailors dress out, while others rush by on their way to their general quarter’s stations.

The changes are also apparent topside. The Ford's flight deck is 8,000 square feet larger than the flight deck on a Nimitz-class carrier, a boost achieved by moving the island aft; the captain's chair sits abeam of the arresting gear.

The added space can accommodate eight extra F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The skipper calls this area his "prime real estate," where quick-turn maintenance, rearming and refueling will minimize the re-spotting of aircraft.

"There is a lot more space, so flight deck operations should be easier," Aviation Ordnance man 3rd Class Sean Fitzgerald said. "But for us who have been doing it for a while, you get used to the island being in a certain spot and how and where you take aircraft. It will require some indoctrination."

Purple shirts accustomed to dragging hoses across the flight deck to refuel birds will not have to do that as often, officials say. Instead, there are a series of fuel spots around the deck that will serve as hot pits where jets can quickly refuel using shorter hoses.

The "bomb farm," where bombs and missiles are stored during flight ops, has been moved from the flight deck. Instead, ordnance will be staged in and issued from forward and aft complexes on the O-2 level.

"It will be a learning curve but will be a lot quicker and safer," said Henderson, the AO2 who has served on the GW.

The ship's 11 weapons elevators are bigger, and the three that reach the flight deck open sideways rather than upright, which enables aircraft to be parked directly above. Best of all, the elevators are magnetic rather than hydraulic.

"Using [hydraulic] elevators is a very messy, messy process," said Fitzgerald, who added that magnetic elevators were better. “It is insane how these work. Very efficient, clean and faster."

Cooler 'cats'

The Ford's cutting edge catapult system uses electromagnetism instead of steam to launch airplanes from the deck. And it also has big pluses for crewmembers.

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System releases less heat and is less noisy than the steam cats on Nimitz-class carriers. That gets a big thumbs-up from flight deck sailors — not to mention the junior officers whose racks are beneath the catapults.

EMALS is designed to provide more flexibility with wind conditions and to ease the jolt of launches, which shudder throughout a Nimitz-class carrier. EMALS works by the same principles found in many new roller coaster rides. That means far less stress on the aircraft.

And that's just the beginning. The Ford's possibilities are big, especially given that it boasts triple the electrical power of a Nimitz-class carrier — capacity to power future systems, perhaps lasers or other directed-energy weapons.

"This ship will be in service for 50 years," Meier said. "There's no telling what will be in inventory."

EMALS can launch a variety of weights, both heavier and lighter. That has specific benefits as the Navy looks to broaden its unmanned technologies. The Bush made history in 2013 when it logged the first launch and trap of an unmanned X-47B drone.

Images provided by Huntington Ingalls Industries.