Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Female welder to make history with sub keel laying at Newport News Shipyard
Hugh Lessig, Newport News Daily Press, May 12
NEWPORT NEWS – Heather Johnson became a welder at Newport News Shipbuilding 11 years ago, and she's fallen in love with it.
Good welders are patient and meticulous. That kind of work appeals to her. It's when she does her best thinking. And there's the gender thing.
"I kind of like it because the boys can do it, and I can do it, too," she said with a smile. "That makes me feel good."
It makes shipyard officials feel good, too. Johnson has been singled out for a noteworthy job.
The 37-year-old mother of four will be the first female welder at the shipyard to do the honors at a Virginia-class submarine keel-laying ceremony. It will happen Saturday, when the keel is laid for the Indiana, the 16th Virginia-class boat and the eighth that Newport News will deliver to the Navy.
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, builds the nuclear-powered attack subs in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn.
Johnson spent part of Tuesday in rehearsals. The highlight of a keel-laying occurs when a welder burns the initials of the ship's sponsor into a steel plate that becomes a permanent part of the ship.
Many times, these are simple block letters. The Indiana's sponsor has thrown out a cursive challenge. The initials of Diane Donald, wife of retired Adm. Kirkland Donald, included a more elaborate and looping "D."
As the sparks flew Tuesday, construction director Bob Meyer watched closely. He said Johnson had already practiced on half a dozen plates in preparation for the ceremony. He was confident the job would go smoothly.
"She's figured it out," he said.
For submarine keel-laying ceremonies, Meyer usually tries to pick a welder from the state the boat represents. Shipyard Trivia No. 1: Of the approximately 1,200 welders at the shipyard, none is from Indiana.
So Meyer went to Plan B: Find a welder with a good work record, who is a solid citizen and sets a good example. Then he got another idea.
"We wanted to break the barrier," he sad. "It's always been guys doing it."
Shipyard Trivia No. 2: Of the 1,200 welders at Newport News, 56 are women.
About 500 people are expected at Saturday's ceremony, including the presidents of Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat, plus the Navy's commander of submarine forces.
"I've had a little practice," she said. "I think I can handle it. It will be just the nervousness I'll have to get over."
Welding has advanced over the years, and the shipyard has tried to keep up. Over the past year and half, it has invested about $18 million to give its welders better equipment.
Dwain Tisdom, a shipyard welding instructor, said the newer equipment is lighter and more ergonomic. Some adjustments are made electronically instead of manually. But that hasn't removed the human element – far from it.
"Welding is a true art form," said Tisdom, who worked in the yard as a welder for 17 years before deciding to teach others.
When Johnson decided to become a welder, she was just looking for a job. Tisdom, who also teaches welding at Tidewater Community College, meets people with a similar attitude. They have no prior training. They just want to try welding.
When Tisdom first came to the shipyard 24 years ago, he knew of four women welders. That's changed in a big way.
"It kind of was a man's world," he said. But women "get in it and they love it."
The job is not for everyone. Welders must deal with extreme cold and heat. A fear of heights is not a good thing, nor is claustrophobia. In the cramped spaces of submarines and ships, they must sometimes use mirrors to see where to weld.
But when the sparks align just right, Johnson sees her job as almost peaceful.
"When I have a lot of stuff going on, that's when I do my best thinking," she said. "When I'm in the zone – welding."