Naval Air: The Continuing Misadventures of the de Gaulle


October 18, 2010: On October 14th, the French nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) set out for a four month mission to fight pirates off Somalia and Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. But before it got very far, it returned to port for repairs. The problem was not major (bad insulation in an electrical cabinet), and can be repaired in a few days. But it's embarrassing, since the de Gaulle has been sidelined by repairs and mid-life refueling for the last three years. Thus the de Gaulle is considered an "unlucky" ship. All navies have these.

Recent examples include the American amphibious ship San Antonio and the Russian nuclear submarine Nerpa. The U.S. ship is a mess (poorly built) and a major embarrassment for a nation that has built most of the amphibious ships in the last century. The Russian sub is more than unlucky, it is considered cursed, because 20 sailors have already died on board. All three ships have spent an inordinate amount of time getting repaired and fussed over.

The de Gaulle took eleven years to build (1988-99) and was not ready for service until late 2000. It was downhill after that, with a long list of problems. The recently completed refurbishment was meant to address the most serious problems. More time was spent testing everything to make sure the de Gaulle is really good to go. But then, just when everything seemed right, something was wrong.

The recent refurbishment, in addition to replacing the nuclear fuel, required 2.5 million man hours (about half of supplied by the crew and navy technicians) from 1,700 workers. The worked involved stripping old paint and applying 11,000 square meters (40 tons) of new paint on the hull. The 7,800 square meter flight deck was refinished. Over 80,000 meters of electrical cables were installed. Most of the mechanical systems were refurbished, and some were replaced. Electronic systems were upgraded, to include more satellite communications access and improved Internet capability. It's now easier to use VOIP (using the Internet for telephone calls.) The de Gaulle was supposed to return to service last year. But more problems arose. For "unlucky ships", there are always more unforeseen problems.



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