Seaworthy: A Tale of Two Shipbuilders

Two ocean engineering majors, Mike Shawcross ’80 and Rolf Bartschi ’81, had friends in common when they were students at Florida Tech, but Shawcross, a rower, and Bartschi, a baseball player, never really crossed paths on campus. It wasn’t until they both had graduated and were in a Sears Roebuck store in Newport News, Virginia, that they recognized each other as fellow Panthers. They became roommates at the beginning of what would become long and impressive careers for both men building nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Mike Shawcross, Northrop Grumman
Photographer: Aaron Clamage
© 2011 Aaron Clamage All Rights Reserved.

Mike Shawcross

When it came time to choose a college, Mike Shawcross was certain he wanted to be a marine biologist. Growing up in Coventry, Connecticut, he was close to the water, and like many in his generation, he was inspired by the adventures of Jacques Cousteau. A friend showed him a brochure from Florida Tech, which offered a program in marine biology, and he was pretty much sold. But while touring the school, a student guide asked if Shawcross wanted to sit in on an ocean engineering class with Professor JACK SCHWALBE. A vision of being an underwater explorer was soon replaced by an interest in working in a shipyard.

Soon after graduation, Shawcross landed at Newport News Shipbuilding. His first job was in nuclear testing where he worked on the reactor and propulsion plant that brought the Navy’s Los Angeles class fast-attack submarines to life. While there, he became interested in the design of the components and working with vendors on various pieces such as turbines, engines and pumps.

“I really got hooked on that, and eventually I was sent to Washington for a special project that was the precursor to the Seawolf submarine,” he said.

He steadily moved into leadership roles in nearly every facet of the company from engineering and design to program management and business development.

Since 2005 he has been vice president in the Ford-class program. The Ford is the first ship in a new class of nuclear powered aircraft carries for the U.S. Navy. In this capacity, Shawcross has led the design, planning and construction efforts of these ships. His current role includes planning and construction of the CVN 80 and future ships.

“The CVN 80 is named the Enterprise, which is neat because it’s the namesake of the CVN 65, which was the first nuclear aircraft carrier that we built,” Shawcross said. “We just decommissioned it after over 50 years of service. Some of the steel from the CVN 65 will be melted down and reused for the new Enterprise 80, which is pretty cool.”

Shawcross credits rowing coach BILL JURGENS for developing the leadership skills he took with him to Newport News. He also thanks Professor Schwalbe, who “wanted nothing less than perfection. Seemed like a pain in the neck then, but he was instilling an engineering discipline I absolutely appreciate now. Florida Tech gave me a good foundation for the rest of my life.”

Rolf Bartschi, Northrop Grumman
Photographer: Aaron Clamage
© 2011 Aaron Clamage All Rights Reserved.

Rolf Bartschi

As a freshman from Lagrangeville, New York, Rolf Bartschi’s first idea for a major at Florida Tech was oceanography. But just like Shawcross, his true calling was ocean engineering. By late summer in 1981, Bartschi was among the bustle of 30,000 other shipbuilders at Newport News Shipbuilding making nuclear-powered vessels.

“The shipyard offered field engineering jobs in the nuclear test department to new graduates like me, which provided great hands-on experience,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

Bartschi started as a mechanical test engineer in the Los Angeles class fast attack submarine division and held positions of increasing responsibility over the next 13 years. The nuclear submarine division was fast paced and submarines were delivered to the Navy every six months.

“A highlight at this point in my career was being on the sea trial test team,” Bartschi said. “Our team went on each sea trial to fully test these new submarines under fully operational conditions.”

He then transferred over to the new carrier construction division where he managed the nuclear construction of the entire Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier series. In a few years, he was promoted to vice president of the nuclear engineering division, where he led the engineering division through submarine construction, aircraft carrier construction and refueling and overhaul of in-service aircraft carriers.

He returned to the construction management division in 2010 to lead construction of the first class aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford until he retired in 2017.

“Given the responsibility to construct, test and deliver the Gerald R. Ford was a great honor and a humbling experience,” Bartschi said. “Learning about President Ford, his leadership and legacy, building this ship named after him made our whole construction team very proud. Having the opportunity to meet and work with the ship’s sponsor, Susan Ford Bales, who supported so many of the ship’s construction events and the shipbuilders who built and tested the ship was incredible.”

Looking back at his Florida Tech education, which was the first step in becoming an ocean engineer, Bartschi said he appreciated the skills and support the university offered.

“All the professors I came across really provided a good, balanced education for us and were really insightful about how to approach a career.”

As for advice for students interested in shipbuilding, he said. “You really need to know the fundamentals of engineering. You can go into management or business aspects of shipbuilding, but you really need to know the technical side of the business first, and that’s the kind of foundation I got from FIT.”

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