How the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier keeps jets flying with fewer sailors than older carriers

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor F/A-18
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Recruit David Caruso, left, and Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Apprentice Darion Thornton, observe an F/A-18E launch from USS Gerald R. Ford, February 8, 2021.

  • Aboard Navy aircraft carriers, Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Equipment) keep flight operations going.
  • The Navy’s newest carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, has first-in-class technology and optimized manning, which allows it to operate with fewer personnel than its Nimitz-class predecessors.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

NORFOLK, Virginia – If an aircraft carrier did not have Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Equipment), also known as ABEs, carriers would just be carrying aircraft. Flight operations wouldn’t be possible, and one of the carrier’s primary missions couldn’t be accomplished.

ABEs assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), work with first-in-class technology known as Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Ford’s ABEs are specifically charged with learning these new systems and paving the way for future Ford-class carriers.

“ABEs conventionally are steam and hydraulic related so that’s all we deal with. So here we have had to adapt to the electrical side of our rate,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class David Vonbehren, from Cincinnati, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading petty officer. “As far as Nimitz [class], everything has been laid out for them over lots of years. They have got everything set up, we had to start everything from the ground up here.”

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor EMALS
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Damon Boyd lubricates an electromagnetic aircraft launching system (EMALS) catapult on USS Ford, July 28, 2017.

Ford-class carriers have optimized manning, which allows them to operate with fewer personnel than Nimitz-class carriers. In the air department’s V-2 division there are approximately 25 ABEs, half the amount that would be assigned on a Nimitz-class carrier.

They also work with many other departments on the ship to maintain their equipment such as reactor, supply, and engineering.

“On a Nimitz-class carrier it’s hydraulics. Here it’s mostly electrical,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class Kimberley O’Donnell, from Silverdale, Washington, assigned to Ford’s air department as the arresting gear leading petty officer. “Engineering helps us out a lot by helping us get parts from the hanger bay to the 03 level, when we have to replace parts.”

While Ford is underway, ABEs are continually testing the equipment and stressing them to their limits.

“EMALS is the future of the Navy,” said Vonbehren. “There is not going to be another aircraft carrier that is going to be able to contend with us.”

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Lakena Un, left, and Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Cononious Stewart, man the center-deck operator on USS Ford, February 3, 2021.

Though the work life of an ABE can vary depending on what ship they work on or what equipment they maintain, Vonbehren says some consistent characteristics you will find in any ABE is that they are knowledgeable, hardworking and adaptable.

“With every ABE comes adaptability and versatility. Each day is started with an open mind and the acceptance of the challenges that have not yet been revealed,” said Chief (Sel) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Justin Knighton, from Euless, Texas, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading chief petty officer. “Through blood and sweat, no matter the elements, an ABE will complete the mission.”

Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications.

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