Export native to take helm of Navy’s newest warship, USS Gerald Ford
In 1982, John Meier was just another Franklin Regional Senior High School student trying to figure out his place in a world rife with uncertainty.
Political tension from the decades-old Cold War lingered.
The Berlin Wall stood tall, and Communism prevailed.
And just about everywhere — from Lebanon to the Falkland Islands — bloody battles were waged over religious differences and territorial disputes.
With all that simmering around him, Meier determined that his biggest contributions would be made not in Western Pennsylvania, but on a much bigger stage.
Next year, when the USS Gerald Ford joins the Navy’s fleet as the first of a class of bigger, mightier nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Capt. John Meier, an Export native, will be its commanding officer, putting him at the helm of one of the world’s largest fighting ships.
The vessel is expected to be a game-changer in America’s war on global terrorism.
When the $13 billion ship leaves port, it will send a message to the world, said Meier, 51.
“The message is one of industrial might, national resolve, capability and readiness that is deployed,” he said.
The 1,100-foot ship, which will displace 100,000 tons, will replace the USS Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It was commissioned in 1961 and taken out of service in 2012.
The ship’s story is told through its numbers, said Meier, who has gained a reputation as a good-natured but stern leader who personally welcomes each new crew member to his ship.
At the heart of the carrier are two nuclear reactors generating three times as much electrical power as those on older carriers.
That extra power will allow the Ford-class carrier and its crew of more than 4,500 to conduct 25 percent more flight missions every day and replace the old-style steam-powered catapults — used to launch aircraft from its deck — with electromagnetic launchers.
The ship, carrying 75 aircraft, is equipped with Sea Sparrow missiles, Rolling Airframe missiles and radar guided 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling gun autocannons. It likely will start its service in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean or the Western Pacific, according to retired Vice Adm. Peter H. Daly, former commander of the USS Nimitz strike group and CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute, an Annapolis-based professional association of nearly 50,000 members.
“There’s not much mystery about it,” Daly said of its first deployment.
Meier equates taking command of the ship to walking on the moon.
“To be the first of the first, that to me is the significant part,” he said. “Building that first crew is the chance of a lifetime.”
When he completes that work, Western Pennsylvania will be well-represented on his crew. Two to three dozen crew members are from the region.
The super-carrier is being prepared for launch as tensions escalate around the world and the Navy feels the pinch of the loss of the USS Enterprise.
“Right now, the Navy is like a hockey team that’s playing a man down,” Daly said.
“The aircraft carrier is hugely important to the Navy,” he said. “It’s an iconic symbol for the nation, a symbol of strength and a credible deterrent.”
Throughout his career, which began with an appointment in 1982 to the U.S. Naval Academy, Meier has embraced the words spoken by President Ronald Reagan about maintaining “peace through strength.”
At no time in the Navy’s history will a single ship exhibit as much fighting strength as the USS Gerald Ford, said Meier, who has logged more than 4,000 hours of flight time as a Navy pilot and made 675 carrier landings.
“I’ve flown in typhoons 800 miles from land, been shot at many times in conflicts,” he said.
He views this assignment with a different brand of enthusiasm and excitement.
In times of crisis, “presidents always ask, ‘Where are the carriers?’ ” Meier said. “Many times, just the sight of the carriers can have an impact on what’s happening on land.”
The ships help in humanitarian efforts as well. Equipped with aircraft, helicopters and hospitals, they can produce fresh water and electricity.
In January 2010, the USS Carl Vinson went to Haiti to provide medical and humanitarian aid after an earthquake. One year later, the USS Ronald Reagan was off the coast of Japan providing food, water, medicine and clothing after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami. In 2013, the USS George Washington and other Navy ships were sent to the Philippines to assist in recovery efforts after a typhoon.
Driven to succeed
Meier’s success does not surprise those who knew him when he was a standout student and outside linebacker on Franklin Regional’s football team.
“He always had a stick-with-it mentality,” said Rick Rivardo, 51, of Murrysville, who has known Meier since ninth grade. “He won’t quit until the job is done.”
Meier’s intense focus on the mission at hand caused him to end his football career at the Naval Academy in favor of academics.
He said he was struggling with his electrical engineering studies and knew he was there to get a degree and be commissioned as an officer.
No one knows how hard that decision was for Meier more than his father.
“He’s a hardworking man. He had a great career,” said Joe Meier, 79, of Export, a retired Army colonel and Westinghouse chemist.
John Meier’s mother, Mary Ellen, died in 2012.
“I only wish she were here to see this,” Joe Meier said. “She would have been very excited.”
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at [email protected].