Sunday, November 15, 2009

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) | Construction of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford got its official kickoff Saturday with a keel-laying ceremony at the shipyard where the $7 billion nuclear-powered ship is being assembled.

The 38th president’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, declared the keel “truly and fairly laid” at an authentication ceremony attended by congressmen, dignitaries and shipyard workers at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding’s shipyard.

Mrs. Bales, the ship’s sponsor, on Friday added her initials in chalk on a metal plate, which was welded to the 900-ton keel - the building block upon which the carrier will rise.

“It’s an honor, first of all, to have an aircraft carrier named after my dad,” Mrs. Bales said in an interview before the ceremony. “I’m going to do the best job I can do to represent him.”

Mrs. Bales, 52, said her father learned an aircraft carrier would be named after him before his death in 2006.

“He was very moved by it,” she said. “Dad was really proud of it, just incredibly proud.”

The carrier, scheduled for delivery to the Navy in 2015, will be the first in the Ford-class series in honor of Ford’s service in the Navy.

Ford, who joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942, served on the light aircraft carrier Monterey during World War II. Aboard the Monterey, he served in the South Pacific and came within inches of being swept out to sea during a typhoon in the Philippine Sea in December 1944, according to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Library.

Ford led the crew that battled a fire sparked by planes shaken loose in the storm, taking actions that some credited with saving the ship and many lives.

The ship was seriously damaged in the storm and the resulting fire and had to be taken out of service. Ford spent the rest of the war ashore and was discharged in February 1946 as a lieutenant commander.

The keel-laying ceremony included many members of the Ford family and dignitaries, including Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy.

“Today signifies the official first step in the construction and delivery of this lead ship of a new class,” said Mike Petters, president of shipbuilding for Northrop Grumman.

After the ceremony, the keel was to be lowered in Drydock 12 at the shipyard.

The Ford represents the first major carrier design change since the 1960s, when the 10-ship Nimitz class was introduced.

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