Stennis pulls into the controlled industrial area of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a planned incremential availability in June. Photo by MC3 Chablis Torrence

Story by MC3 Chase Corbin

The crew of John C. Stennis got the 97,000-ton Nimitz-class aircraft carrier underway Tuesday for the first time in nearly seven months.

Stennis, which entered 15 years of service Dec. 9, conducted testing during the final phase of the ship’s planned maintenance period, known as Sea Trials.

“Sea Trials puts an exclamation point on all the work that 2,672 Sailors did,” said Stennis’ Executive Officer, Capt. Michael Wettlauffer. “This is the proving time for us, at sea where we belong, testing out all the equipment, spaces and capabilities to prove that the hundreds of millions of dollars that U.S. tax payers have spent on us were worth it.”

Sea Trials is an assessment of the ship’s readiness and ability as an operational unit. All of the ship’s systems, installations and repairs have been tested, inspected and validated, ending Stennis’ maintenance period, known as a planned incremental availability (PIA).

“The three big items we accomplished out here at Sea Trials were main engine and combat systems testing as well as ongoing catapult and jet blast deflector certifications,” said Strike Operations Officer Cmdr. Stevin Johnson.

While underway Stennis tested the hangar bay and flight deck countermeasure washdown systems.

“We scrubbed 4.5 acres of flight deck surface,” said Mini Boss Cmdr. Scott Eanes. “Making it clean and FOD free so we can prepare to catch and launch airplanes.”

Stennis’ aircraft catapults were also operated for the first time since entering PIA.

“The catapult and arresting gear machinery that had been sitting dormant the whole PIA period were brought back to life,” said Eanes. “Feeling the ship shutter as the catapults were fired was probably a familiar feeling for some and a new feeling for others.”

All requirements for Sea Trials were completed during this underway.

“The appropriate Sea Trial items we needed to accomplish, we completed,” said Chief Engineer Cmdr. Matt Feehan.

Pulling away from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF) pier marked the first time the carrier had been operational since returning from a six–month Western Pacific deployment in July 2009 and serving as surge ready carrier.

“Stennis Sailors have worked extremely hard the last eight months preparing for PIA even when we were still the surge ready carrier conducting carrier qualifications off the coast of Southern California and during our six months in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard,” said John C. Stennis Commanding Officer Capt. Joseph Kuzmick. “Many Sailors have spent a lot of long hours working away from their families even though we were home pierside in order to meet PIA milestones and bring John C. Stennis back to the operational fleet.”

More than 300,000 man-days and $137 million of completed work were tested underway. While the ship was in PIA, PSNS & IMF workers, contractors and Stennis Sailors renovated high-pressure turbines, training classrooms, catapult launch valves, arresting gear, flight deck non-skid and conducted catapult accumulator inspections.

“I enjoyed sharing information with the civilians that came aboard,” said Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Mikel Pierce. “I got to teach them a few things and they taught me a few as well.”

Stennis’ PIA tank team set a new standard for the rest of the carrier fleet. The tank team consisted of 40 Sailors who saved the ship, government and tax-payers approximately $3 million.

“Before this PIA, tank maintenance had always been contracted out because the level of work and the danger,” said Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) (AW/SW) Bill Maloney. “We started a standard for the fleet. The USS Nimitz is taking our place here and will have their own tank team.”

The respirator issue and protection program aboard Stennis also set a new fleet-wide standard.

“The respirator issue and protection program, led by Lt. Ben Barrus and his proactive leadership, was a key aspect of environmental exposure,” said Stennis’ safety officer, Cmdr. Lisa Ketterman. “The program was named a ‘Fleet Best Practice’ by the Naval Safety Center and will be implemented fleet-wide.”

Stennis’ success during PIA can be directly attributed to the joint effort of Stennis Sailors, PSNS & IMF work force and contractors and their ability to work together to accomplish goals on time.

“I am incredibly proud of the teamwork of the entire team, which has actually been like working with good neighbors,” said PSNS & IMF Commander Capt. Mark R. Whitney. “The long-term relationship between PSNS & IMF and John C. Stennis is a key factor in working through the issues with great communication and trust. Bravo Zulu to Capt. Joseph Kuzmick, Mr. Tom Woodell and their team.”

“I am grateful for the strong relationship between Stennis and PSNS & IMF. It’s inspiring to see Sailors employed side-by-side with PSNS & IMF workforce and contractors to complete maintenance so John C. Stennis lasts 50 years and continues to contribute to our nation’s operations around the world and at home,” said Capt. Kuzmick.

John C. Stennis’ completion of Sea Trials renews the crew’s focus on the ship’s training cycle and operational proficiency for deployment in 2011.