About 100 onlookers gathered near Fort Popham in Phippsburg to watch the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, built by Bath Iron Works, sail down the Kennebec Friday, August 27, 2021. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

The future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, Bath Iron Works’ third and final Zumwalt-class destroyer, left the shipyard and coasted down the Kennebec River Friday toward the open ocean to undergo its first round of at-sea trials.

About 100 people, mostly BIW workers and their families mixed with a few unsuspecting beachgoers, gathered around Phippsburg’s Fort Popham at the mouth of the Kennebec River to admire the stealth destroyer as it sailed toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Bao Tien, a BIW machinist of two years said watching the Zumwalt cruise down the Kennebec River is “the greatest feeling because we built something that’s going to defend the United States.”

“A lot of us who work on the ship say it’s our home because we go there to work on it and spend most of our days there,” said Tien, who has also worked on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the other types of ships BIW builds. “Now, it’s leaving and it’s like our home is gone and it’s time to work on another ship. It’s strange, especially with this being the last of its kind.”

Sea trials, also called builder’s trials, are the shipyard’s chance to test the ship’s systems and identify any issues before the Navy conducts its own tests. BIW Spokesperson David Hench said sea trials are expected to take several days, but declined to say where the ship headed or when it was to return to the shipyard, citing security reasons.

The Zumwalt-class destroyer is 610 feet long and about 81 feet wide, with a displacement of about 15,761 tons, slightly larger than the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the other kind of ship BIW makes. The destroyer can reach speeds over 30 knots, and hold a crew of 158, according to BIW’s website.

The future USS Lyndon B. Johnson is the last of three Zumwalt-class destroyers built by Bath Iron Works. The stealth destroyer left the shipyard for the first time Friday for its first round of at-sea trials. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Although he has worked on the two other Zumwalts and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Cody Nelson, a BIW tinsmith of four years said he doesn’t usually take the time to watch a ship leave for sea trials, but made a point to watch the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson because “it’s the last one and the ship we’ve worked and struggled on it for so long, so it’s an awesome feeling to watch it go.”

Bath Iron Works, owned by General Dynamics, laid the keel of the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson in January 2017, marking the ceremonial beginning of building the vessel. The ship was later christened at the Bath shipyard in April 2019. Once complete, the destroyer will sail to its new homeport in San Diego, California.

The Zumwalt left BIW for sea trials on the 113th birthday of its namesake, the 36th president of the United States.

Lyndon B. Johnson was first elected vice president as John F. Kennedy’s running mate in 1960. Three years later, he was sworn in as president upon Kennedy’s assassination and held the position from 1963-1969.

Johnson also served as a U.S. Navy Reserve officer before being called to active duty after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as a lieutenant commander in the South Pacific during World War II and was awarded an Army Silver Star Medal, by General Douglas MacArthur “for gallantry in action in the vicinity of Port Moresby and Salamaua, New Guinea, on June 9, 1942,” according to the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library.

After returning from active duty, Johnson reported to Navy leaders and Congress what he believed were unacceptable living conditions for the military and fought for better standards for all military members, according to the Defense Department.

Both Nelson and Tien said they believe once the Johnson leaves the shipyard, the company’s production speed will increase because its focus will be solely on Arleigh Burkes.

“The (Arleigh Burke) has been BIW’s bread and butter for years,” said Nelson. “It’ll be good to get back to what we do best.”

“The sea trials of Lyndon B. Johnson and its delivery are important milestones in their own right, but also represent a pending shift for the BIW workforce to focusing exclusively on building DDG 51s (Arleigh Burkes), the most versatile surface combatant in the U.S. Navy,” Hench wrote in a statement Friday. “BIW’s commitment to accelerating ship construction to meet the Navy’s needs is essential as the Navy considers its next multi-year contract for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and as we work with the Navy on the next destroyer class … .”

The Congressional Research Service has estimated that each Zumwalt will cost more than $4 billion to construct, compared to about $1.6 billion for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

Considered to be the most technologically advanced destroyer in the Navy’s arsenal, the Zumwalts’ futuristic look features a sleek, wave-piercing tumblehome design, making the destroyer appear much smaller on radar than it actually is. It features an electric propulsion system and new types of weapons.

Earlier this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday confirmed the Zumwalts will be the first ships in the Navy to be outfitted with new hypersonic missiles. The weapons, originally thought to be added to submarines, “can maneuver en route to their destination,” and can fly at speeds of Mach 5, or about 3,800 mph, according to a Congressional Research Service report published in April.

While sea trials are a mark of progress for the shipyard’s final Zumwalt, the Zumwalt class has had a tumultuous history.

In the early 2000s, the Navy proposed building 32 Zumwalt destroyers at BIW, giving the shipyard’s workforce hope for years of work to come. But as the years wore on, the number of ships ordered was slashed repeatedly. Ultimately, the Navy ordered just three Zumwalt-class destroyers.

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