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Newport News shipyard to lay keel for JFK construction

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Keel-laying at Newport News shipyard signifies start of construction for new aircraft carrier

Just before 11 a.m. Saturday, crane operator David Rushing will do what he does best at Newport News Shipbuilding: Lift a very heavy piece of steel and put it in the right place.

This particular job will be memorable, even for a 39-year veteran like Rushing.

It will mark the high point of the keel-laying ceremony for the future USS John F. Kennedy, the second aircraft carrier of the new Gerald R. Ford class. About 1,500 invited guests are expected at the downtown shipyard for the celebration that begins at 10 a.m.

A keel-laying marks the ceremonial start of construction, and Rushing will cap it off in a big way. Perched high above the crowd in the shipyard's signature "Big Blue" crane, he will lift a 930-ton keel unit into the dry dock, where the aircraft carrier will take shape over the next several years.

In reality, work has been underway for some time — shipyard workers cut the first piece of steel in 2011. The Kennedy is scheduled to join the fleet in the summer of 2022. It will replace the USS Nimitz, which is scheduled for inactivation in 2025.

"I hate to say it's another lift — it's really not another lift," said Rushing, of Williamsburg. "But it's something we do every day, and we have full confidence."

He'll have plenty of people rooting for him. On the speaker's podium will be Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Reps. Randy Forbes and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, Vice Adm. William Hilarides and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley.

The ship's sponsor, Caroline Kennedy, will appear in a video to mark the occasion.

Rushing isn't the only shipyard worker who will have an audience. Leon Walston will weld Caroline Kennedy's initials onto a steel plate that will become part of the ship. Walston spent time Friday practicing his "C B K" — Caroline Bouvier Kennedy — as reporters and photographers looked on.

The Elizabeth City, N.C., resident has worked at the shipyard for 13 years. He was born in Boston so he knows something of the Kennedy's home turf. After he was named as the welder, he began researching more about the Kennedy family.

"At first, I thought it would probably be fine, but now I'm starting to get a little nervous about it," he said with a laugh.

This will be the second Navy aircraft carrier to bear Kennedy's name. The first JFK joined the fleet in 1968. It was the last of the conventionally powered carriers before the nuclear-powered ships.

In all, the carrier known affectionately as "Big John" went on 17 deployments, launched airstrikes in Iraq in 1990 and 1991, and participated in numerous multination training exercises. It was decommissioned in 2007.

John Bloom, now a Newport News shipyard nuclear engineer, served on the carrier in the late 1980s as a lieutenant junior grade. The JFK provided him with a few special memories.

One came in 1986, when the JFK led a fleet of ships in honor of the 100th anniversary and rededication of the Statue of Liberty. Then, during a Mediterranean cruise on Jan. 4, 1989, a pair of F-14 Tomcats from the ship shot down two Libyan Mig-23s that were approaching in a hostile manner.

The first commanding officer of the JFK was Rear Adm. Earl P. Yates. At Saturday's ceremony, he will radio the command to Rushing to lift the keel unit into the dry dock.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

Want to watch?

A webcast of the ceremony will be available at thefordclass.com. Follow @HIIndustries for live updates, and be part of the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the "hashtag" #JFKCVN79. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m.

The Daily Press will be posting updates on its Twitter account from the event Saturday. Follow the same hashtag — #JFKCVN79 — to see our posts.

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