Anyone Here Know How to Drive This Thing?

As we stumble further along our post-Cold War path, the United States of America, defender of democracy, conqueror of the Third Reich, bane of Tojo, ruler of the high seas, the Greatest Military Power Ever Seen On Earth, seems to need people who can drive warships. And by drive, I mean so as to not hit things you shouldn’t be hitting. I wonder if the US Navy has taken out an ad on USAJOBS: Wanted, anyone who can steer a ship without killing people. Enquire within.

Hyperbole. Sarcasm. I’m kidding.

Sort of.

Maybe – no, assuredly – it’s a symptom of the mass information age. We hear about two Arleigh Burke class navy destroyers – greyhounds of the sea – getting run over by big lumbering cargo ships and we lose our minds. The US Navy is currently operating a 270-ship fleet. Back when we fielded Reagan’s 600-ship navy, before Facebook and Twitter, warships were probably slamming into each other and everyone else daily, right? We just didn’t hear about it.

Well, no.

Sure, there were incidents. Big ones. Kennedy/Belknap comes to mind, as does Greeneville/Ehime Maru. HMAS Melbourne did a number on a couple of ships including a US Navy destroyer. There were others. But the latest incidents involving cargo ships ramming and seriously damaging the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain in the crowded seaways near Tokyo and Singapore have sounded the alarm – the collision alarm if you will. Both incidents resulted in loss of life – the Fitzgerald almost sunk and would have were it not for the heroic efforts of its crew.

How well can the US Navy operate its ships and why are we even having this conversation? The US 7th Fleet, of which both the Fitzgerald and the McCain are part, seems to be the poster child for bad driving. There was also a recent incident in the 7th where the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground. Less serious, but still troubling. One has to wonder if the entire fleet is at risk.

So, what happened? Let’s take the McCain incident first as it’s, I believe, more indicative of the underlying problem.

Short answer: key watchstanders on the bridge of the McCain didn’t know how to operate the equipment they were manning, resulting in a loss of steering control.

Longer answer: the bridge of a warship – any warship – is where a group of on-duty sailors and officers control the movement and other functions of the ship. Their duties are defined as watchstations and each watchstander has certain specific responsibilities. The Officer of the Deck is the on-duty person in charge of the bridge (the whole ship, actually, but he or she is on the bridge). The captain of the ship may at any time issue orders to the OOD or even ‘assume the deck’, meaning take personal control of the ship.

To perform duties on the bridge (or at any number of watchstations on the ship, but this is about the bridge), a person must either be ‘qualified’ to stand that specific watchstation or be under the direct, close tutelage of a person qualified for that specific watchstation. In other words, be a trainee.

To be qualified means that person has demonstrated an acceptable knowledge of how to operate the equipment associated with the watchstation and is very familiar with normal operating and emergency procedures, which define how to operate the equipment during particular evolutions, including emergencies or even combat conditions.

The incident with the McCain can be traced to mishandling of two watchstations, or more if you include the OOD and even the captain. The captain was on the bridge (but had not assumed the deck) and noticed the helmsman struggling to control both the throttles and steering of the ship, which are normal functions of that watchstation. The helmsman is ‘driving’ the ship, just as you do when you drive a car: your basic actions are to steer and accelerate/brake. Unlike you driving your car, a navy helmsman does not make any decisions on which way to steer or how fast to go – the OOD does that. So, when the captain noticed the helmsman’s problems, he ordered the OOD to ‘split the watch’, which means transfer one of the two functions (throttles, in this case) from the helmsman to a nearby station called the lee helmsman. For clarity, understand that key US Navy warship functions such as steering, throttles and others can be accomplished at several places, including off the bridge (steering can be done back in the engine room by taking manual control of the hydraulic actuators that move the rudders, for example). A warship like the McCain has redundant helm consoles right on the bridge.

Here’s where the incident starts to go bad. The helmsman was poorly trained and did not actually know how to transfer throttle control to the lee helmsman. As it turns out, basically no one on the bridge that mattered knew how to do it properly, including the OOD. The helmsman actually unknowingly transferred BOTH steering and throttles to lee helm. Shortly, thereafter, the helmsman, who thought he still had control of the rudders, announced that he had ‘lost steering control’.

Chaos ensued. In their attempts to regain steering, the OOD and other watchstanders tried transferring helm controls between stations five times and ended up not only not regaining steering control but also splitting the throttle control between stations (the McCain has two propellers that can be controlled independently). So the watchstander who thought he had control of both propellers actually had control of only one. Here, it is key to note that you can actually steer the ship by varying the speed differential between the propellers. If you increase the speed on the starboard prop while backing off the port prop, the ship will turn to port.

And that’s what happened. Mismanagement of the steering control as well as the propellers caused the McCain to veer into the path of the cargo ship they had just passed and ten sailors died.

The navy’s report on the incidents finds specific fault with the McCain’s training regimen. I already mentioned how no one knew how to transfer helm control properly, but there also were two people on the bridge who were not even officially qualified to stand watch. Moreover, three sailors on the bridge were temporary transfers from another ship, sent to the McCain to gain training, ironically, while their ship was being repaired after running aground (the third recent US warship incident). Although qualified on the other ship, two of them had not qualified on the McCain’s watchstations and the control systems between the ships are different.

To say this is unacceptable is not only obvious but way too kind. My touchstone is personal experience on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. The concept of watchstanders – many watchstanders! – not knowing how to do basic watch functions is unbelievable. It did not happen on the submarine. Once qualified, we knew our equipment and knew the procedures. Sure, mistakes were made but nothing of this magnitude. Not even close.

The navy report on the collisions is scathing. The McCain’s captain and executive officer have already been fired as have people up in the chain of command, including the vice-admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet (in the military, that means they have been reassigned to posts where they’re less likely to kill people). I’m not privy to all the details, of course, and tend not to prejudge, which is why I waited for this report while some other people were blaming Russian hacking.

And the Fitzgerald incident? The report provides some details of what happened there as well. Such as the radar operators didn’t know how to work the damned radar! But the principal cause of the incident seems to be a failure by the OOD to do his job properly. Most egregiously, he failed to notify the captain when the ship came within close range of other ship traffic, as is required by the captain’s standing orders. Standing orders are sort of permanent rules of conduct and procedure imposed by the captain. It is common for captains to require their OODs to notify them when the ship comes within a certain distance of other ships.

If we distill the incidents to root cause, underlying all the shiphandling failures is a lack of training, a lack of competence. Too many people charged with operating navy ships simply aren’t trained well enough to do their jobs without  unduly endangering their ships, their shipmates, and other ships that cross their paths. It takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to competently operate a US Navy warship. It’s not really something that you can learn easily.

I’ve never driven a ship and probably would be a hazard of the first order if I had to do it in a crowded seaway. But I have operated a submarine nuclear reactor and stood other watches in a submarine engine room, duties which required a similar military standard of competence to ensure I could perform my part of the ship’s mission while not being a danger to my shipmates and the ship itself. Before I could become qualified, I had to demonstrate an extraordinary amount of knowledge and competence to my superiors, including the captain, who was ultimately responsible for my performance. It wasn’t easy and I can say that I really could not have done it without extensive, focused training.

Training. You just can’t get around it. No matter how brilliant or innately suited a person is for a role in operating a navy warship, that person will be a danger to everyone around them if they’re not trained to a high standard. So why the catastrophic training failures on the McCain, in particular? It’s not like the navy didn’t know there was a training deficiency well before these incidents.

How did they know? They knew because this latest hasn’t been the first report of fleet readiness. Less than a decade ago, Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle (retired) was asked by the Chief of Naval Operations (the navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to conduct a comprehensive review of surface fleet readiness in 2009. Adm. Balisle is a former destroyer, cruiser and carrier strike force commander and is considered well qualified in areas of force readiness. In his report (issued in 2010), he identified several weaknesses, some quite serious, that seemed to require remediation and also seem to address issues that were in play with the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents. In other words, these collisions were forecast. Among the most serious were training failures, particularly those involving training of surface warfare division officers. These are the folks who qualify as OODs.  You can read the report here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/43245136/Balisle-Report-on-FRP-of-Surface-Force-Readiness

In 2003, the school that prepared officers for surface fleet sea duty was closed and a new program implemented that relied on self-study and shipboard training. The young officers reported to their first ship with a packet of CDs and were expected to learn their trade that way, along with ‘on-the-job’ training from experienced officers. The trouble is, as Adm. Balisle uncovered, it didn’t work. Not only were the junior officers over-worked with regular duties (a common theme in the navy and a contributor to the collisions, according to the recent report) to the point where they had little time for those CDs, but the already qualified officers similarly had little time to devote to training. The navy’s plan to pass on basic ship-handling training to the fleet commands was a failure, as evidenced by the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, in particular. And probably the Antietam grounding as well.

The US military, like most large government agencies, is very bureaucratic with a lot of institutional and historical inertia, so it’s hard to change course. It’s hard for the navy to not only take a good look at how they do business (which they have done at least twice recently) but to implement meaningful changes based on that introspection. Change has been done before – the shift during WWII from the primacy of battleships to aircraft carriers being a solid example. The acceptance of nuclear power for submarines another. But perhaps the best example that I have good experience with is the implementation of the Sub Safe program following the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher. After that incident, the navy became acutely aware that standards for quality control, procedural compliance and other aspects relating to safe operation of naval nuclear reactors was sorely lacking. Through the guidance of Admiral Hyman Rickover (more like arm-twisting), the navy quickly transformed its nuclear program into what it became in the 1970’s and still is today: an example how to do difficult things right and still perform the mission. In part, they did that by implementing rigorous training requirements.

Maybe the surface fleet needs their own Adm. Rickover.

 

10% Disabled

When I got out of the US Navy in 1979, I had it my mind that I was done with Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club and its affiliates. After six years, I’d had enough. So it was with some surprise and not a small bit of trepidation when a few months later I received a letter from one of the those affiliates, the Veterans Administration. Seems I was required to appear at the local regional VA hospital at a specific time and date. No option, be there. Huh.

Not wanting to incur the bureaucratic wrath of the US government, I showed up at the appointed time, clueless as to why I was summoned. During the next several hours, I was essentially given a full physical examination. The doctors and nurses were unhelpful as to what it was all about – perhaps they didn’t know. The system had deemed I be examined, so that’s what they did. I left the hospital with hardly more of clue than when I entered.

Making the whole thing even odder was the fact that, like everyone who is discharged from military service, I was given pretty much a full physical examination just prior to leaving the navy. Why the VA wanted to do it all over again was a mystery.

A few months later, the answer arrived in the form of another letter from the VA. Using arithmetic only a government agency can comprehend, they had determined that I was 10% disabled. I was officially a disabled veteran.

Which 10%? Well, anyone who knew me back then would have sworn it was my mental faculties, particularly the two psychiatrists who examined me at the behest of Metropolitan Edison Company, operators of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant where I had just applied for a job. I wasn’t entirely right in the head. Call it PSSD (Post-Submarine Stress Disorder). But no, the VA had determined that I had bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. I was entitled to what amounts to beer money for the rest of my life.

Two things about that. One, I’m pretty sure the VA doctor and nurses hadn’t done squat in terms of examining my knees. They did the usual physical exam stuff – EKG, chest X-ray (?), blood work, turn your head and cough. I think there might have been a rudimentary stress test, too. Maybe not. But definitely no examination of the knees beyond the usual reflex test. So, why the physical? The only thing I can think of besides medical routine is that the VA wanted to make sure there wasn’t something else wrong with me. There was, you know. I developed bad tinnitus from the horrendous din in the sub’s engine room. I mean, seriously, it was fucking loud back between the mains, which is why I didn’t hang out there all that much. Anyway, I blame the navy for my hearing, too.

The second thing is that they were 100% right. I did have bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. Sort of.

Here’s the thing about that. I busted up both knees while I was in. Chondromalacia patella they called it, although the VA decades later said – “no way it’s chondro mal. More like osteo mal.” Whatever, the damn knees have been crappy since about 1977. And I remember exactly, to the moment, with GPS accuracy, when and where it happened. One of the few clear memories I have of … well, anything.

On the north shore of Kauai, there’s a long hiking trail to a secluded beach. It’s right out of the movie South Pacific. Kalalau Beach. One of the most scenic and peaceful places I have ever been. Back in the day, the only way you got to the beach was via the eleven mile (one-way) trail along the ocean cliffs. Nowadays, I understand you can drop in by Zodiac boat although maybe they’re restricting that, too. But in 1977, it was the trail. During one off-crew period, three shipmates and I decided to do Kalalau.

Wow. Gorgeous waterfalls, ocean views, perilous drop-offs from the trail to certain death, the Kalalau trail is wonderful, magical. As a bonus, towards the end, once you lose the tourists, the trail becomes clothing-optional. Kalalau Beach itself was more like clothing-discouraged and everyone one there seemed to abide by that.

For most of the trail, once you gain the 800 feet or so of elevation, you wind in and out following the contour of the ‘finger’ cliffs along the coast. When it veers inland, you get tropical vegetation and extreme humidity. Veering seaward, it dries out and you get those perilous dropoffs I mentioned. But mostly, not a lot of elevation change along the bulk of the trail.

Until you get to the end, near Kalalau Beach. Then – and I remember this clearly even if it isn’t true (it is) – the trail descends a ridiculously steep grade down to sea level. So steep that you may lose your footing. Which I did. Rather than fall over in a heap, I did what most people would do – I went with gravity and more or less ran down the slope, avoiding an unseemly wipeout. This with a full back pack.

I may not be describing it all that well, but the point is that what I did was incredibly hard on my knees and after gaining the beach, I knew I had done something terribly bad. My knees hurt. So what, right? I’ll be fine the next day. Right?

Not so much. Although I limped around and explored that incredible beach for the rest of the day and the next, I was hurting. When we headed out, I actually needed help from my buddies to get back. They took some load off my pack, which eased the pain a bit.

The knees were never right after that. “But wait!”, you say. “How is that the navy’s fault? You were on a fricking hiking trip!”

Well, there’s this seemingly weird but actually understandable concept that the military owns you and your body. Whatever happens to you while you’re in, the military deals with it. Basically, they had the responsibility to discharge me in the same condition I was in when I joined, which was physically fit. So, they owned the knees no matter what happened to them. Mind you, this arrangement was not a one-way street. I had no right to refuse medical care, for example. As an example, prior to every patrol, we had to see the dentist and if the dentist said we needed work, it was done. We had no input into the matter. The navy can’t have sailors with impacted wisdom teeth or whatever while under water in the middle of the Pacific. Similarly, I got the notorious swine flu injection without my consent.

Hiking the Kalalau – twice, I went back the next year (I know, don’t yell at me.) – wasn’t the only activity that was hard on my knees. This might be a little hard to explain, but part of my job as a nuclear electronics technician/reactor operator was to maintain the reactor controls equipment on the sub. As you might imagine, submarines are a bit cramped. Most of the electronics panels I worked on were in narrow alleyways. Every week, we had to calibrate the various panels, which involved hours of squatting in front of them while we operated the test equipment and adjusted the channels. That is very hard on the knees even if your knees are in good shape. Every one of us would groan after a weekly on the PPIPs. The back hurt; the knees hurt; the ankles even hurt. I doubt everyone sustained permanent damage to their knees but chronic injuries are not uncommon in such occupations.

Since becoming a ‘disabled veteran’, I’ve tried my best to not act like one. Before the disability got too bad, I ran 5K and 10K races, played an obscene amount of tennis and hiked hundreds of miles. Other than running road races, which I wasn’t in love with anyway, the difficulty with hiking has been the biggest challenge to my preferred lifestyle. I like to hike and I like to hike terrain with significant elevation changes, which are the toughest on my knees. Going downhill in particular is quite damaging.

Which brings me back to Telescope Peak. I wrote a blog post on that epic hike earlier. Summiting Death Valley’s ultimate peak is perhaps my greatest post-Kalalau hike and I’m still suffering the effects years later. It was really hard on the knees.

Totally worth it.

I do not have a ‘Disabled Veteran’ plate and will never have one even if I’m eligible (which I’m not – there’s a 25% disabled threshold for that). Although I am eligible for VA health care and Atlanta has a fine VA hospital and outlying clinics, I rarely take advantage of it. I have my own private insurance and, frankly, it bothers me to use the VA because it’s so underfunded. There are many, many veterans who need their services way more than I do.

So, beer money for life.

Not a Mormon, Thanks Anyway

About an hour’s drive north of Idaho Falls, off a nondescript two-lane road, you’ll find a US Navy installation. This surprises some – why a navy base out here hundreds of miles from water? Actually part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (now run by the Department of Energy), the site also hosts the Naval Prototype Training Unit and is where some of the sailors slated to be the next generation of naval nuclear power operators come to train. There’s a similar facility somewhere out east – Groton, Connecticut, I think. The Idaho NPTU was the first, though.

INEL has a bit of history, at least from a nuclear reactor standpoint, if not from the exploits of the sailors who passed through. It was the site of an experiment to test the safety systems designed to control a full core meltdown. One of the test reactors was actually subjected to an intentional meltdown to see what would happen. We learned a lot from that, I suppose. A less happy incident took place not too long before I got there. Some workers mucking about with the SL1 reactor apparently tried to get one of the control rods unstuck by manually pulling it out from the top. They were successful, but a little too much so – the rapid extraction of the rod caused a local prompt criticality, the water in the rod channel flashed to steam and forcefully ejected the control rod out of the core, impaling one of the workers. He died, of course, as did a few others from radiation exposure. Or so they say.

 

I was stationed there in the winter of 1975 and ’76, having completed the classroom part of my nuclear training at the Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, California during the previous six months. Like the others sent to this frozen outpost, I would learn on a real reactor what they had taught me on paper at Mare Island. NPTU had three prototype reactors – actual, functioning power plants that were designed to simulate naval engineering spaces. Mine was called S1W: it was the first (1) submarine (S) prototype built by Westinghouse (W).

S1W was designed to resemble a fleet submarine power plant – it was housed in a ‘hull’ and was the same size and power as a real sub’s reactor. Kinda cool, actually. They also had one patterned after an aircraft carrier plant, the USS Enterprise’s, I believe. By the luck of the draw, I was slotted for S1W.

We lived in town, not on the base. I chose Idaho Falls for some reason long lost in my memory but could well have decided on Pocatello, Blackfoot or another nearby town if I wanted. Most of us lived in Idaho Falls – it was the biggest and the closest to the base. That was important because to get there, you had to ride the bus and the further away you lived, the longer the ride. Time was precious to us, we were later to learn.

Idaho Falls has enough Mormons in it that you’d think you were in Utah, which is not too far away. Weird place to live. We called it Idiot Flats. It was picturesque, though. Nice river running through town and the nearby mountains were great. But the best part was nearby Yellowstone National Park. I must have gone there half a dozen times in the six months I was in Idaho.

I stayed in a two bedroom apartment with Charlie, a friend from Mare Island. I forget his last name, it might have been Roberts. Nice guy, easy to get along with. Between him and Steve Roquemore, we were hanging-out buddies, although we had many other friends too. A close-knit group of guys, I guess, which was understandable because we had all just gone through a pretty grueling classroom phase at Mare Island. Steve was a qualified pilot and he and I went up once in a Cessna and flew around the Grand Tetons. I got to fly the plane some.

Idaho was a bit of a coming out for me. I was only 20 years old, although I had been in the navy two years now (we nukes got a LOT of training). When I arrived in Idaho, I was still a bit excited about being in the navy and being a nuke. I had the great adventure to look forward to. But by the time I left, I was disillusioned and regretted my enlistment. It wasn’t any single event that changed my attitude, and to be honest, I’m now not exactly sure why it changed. But change it did. There was that ‘incident’ at S1W, to be sure, but I’ll get to that.

Despite being a rather backwater town, Idiot Flats offered plenty of opportunity for us sailors to get into trouble. Lots of drinking, shooting pool, chasing women. Wait, did I just say chasing women? Me? Yep, it happened although not very successfully. One girl – a Mormon – wanted to marry me, but I knew it was just to get out of Idaho. Still, she was nice and I had fun with her for a while. Come to think of it, after I turned her down, so did Charlie and Steve. Poor girl was really desperate to get away.

It snows in Idaho. It snows a lot. During a period of a few weeks, I couldn’t even get into my car. Hell, I could hardly find it – it was just a vague mound in the parking lot and I wasn’t sure which mound. But some of the others had trucks and such that did better in the snow, so I didn’t really need the car. And, as I said, the bus took us to ‘work’. That bus trip was brutal some days, waiting at a busstop before sunrise when the temperature is minus 2000 Fahrenheit and the wind’s howling. Brrrr. Bad place for a lizard.

I had a 1972 Chevy Vega GT, which I bought in San Francisco after I got the idea in my head that my previous car, a 1967 four-door Chevelle, wasn’t reliable enough to make it in Idaho. Strange notion, because the Vega was notoriously unreliable, in general. Fortunately, mine wasn’t. It was a stick shift, though, and the Chevelle was an automatic. I learned to drive the stick on my own and on the streets of San Francisco.

The Chevelle was great. I bought it off a small lot during my previous time in SF when I was stationed at Treasure Island, located in the middle of SF bay. The car dealer probably saw me coming – another wet behind the ears sailor. Because it had bench seats, a bunch of us could pile into it to see games at Candlestick Park or the Oakland Coliseum. But the Vega did OK in Idaho, at least when it wasn’t under ten feet of snow. I took it to Hawaii where I eventually traded it in on a 1971 Datsun 240Z, which I often wax nostalgic over.

But the Idaho winter was really bad, especially for driving. I remember one time Charlie and me helping a guy (a fellow sailor but not one of my buddies) get his car unstuck in a virtual blizzard. He was grateful so we went to his place for a celebratory drink. Anti-freeze, he called it. We each were poured a glass of whiskey that must have been four inches tall. As I am today, I was a lightweight with alcohol and normally avoided hard liquor. But drink it I did, with the predictable result.

At the NPTU, we spent some time in classrooms, but the emphasis was on ‘qualifying’ on the reactor. I was a reactor operator, meaning that I was designated to operate the reactor control panel. But because we cross-trained on everything, I had to become proficient at the electrical and mechanical stuff, too. It was a bit of a competition. See, the promise was whoever qualified first would get their choice of duty station in the fleet when it was over. Quite an incentive, because the USS Eisenhower – an aircraft carrier – was due to be commissioned soon and our class would make up a lot of the crew. Nobody wanted to be on a carrier; there had been a lot of trouble on them since the end of the war. Violence, race riots, bad stuff – they were like floating depressed cities. I qualified first in my class and chose a ballistic missile submarine out of Guam. Had to pass the psyche evaluation for that first, though.

So we learned how to be good nukes – how to operate the plant during all sorts of conditions and disasters. We’d be assigned watches at the various stations along with an instructor and they’d throw all kinds of crap at us – things breaking, reactor freaking out, pipe ruptures, whatever. It wasn’t too bad, but some of the guys got a little behind in their quals. If you got too far, you found yourself restricted to base and on extended hours.

As I said, I qualified first, so along with my guaranteed choice of duty station, I was also the first guy in my class who could stand watch by himself without an instructor. One of the stations they put me on was one that trainees didn’t do because it wasn’t something that you’d find on a real submarine – the Water Brake, aka The Ocean.

A navy reactor plant performs two basic functions: it provides electric power for everything on board, and it turns the propeller. Because a submarine changes depth and goes into water that varies in temperature considerably, the density of the water is quite variable and that affects the propeller’s ability to drive the boat. One really big, negative effect is cavitation. The spinning propeller creates a zone of low pressure on the trailing edge of the blades. With enough blade velocity, that pressure can drop low enough such that the water forms vapor bubbles – it boils. After the blade passes, the pressure recovers and the bubbles collapse. This process is called cavitation and it is actually quite noisy and can be picked up on a sonar easily from a distance. Pumps experience this phenomenon as well and is one of the key design criteria for sizing fluid systems. Extended periods of cavitation can ruin a pump impeller.

The throttleman (the guy who controls the steam to the main engine turbines and thus the propeller shaft speed) on a boat is trained to avoid cavitation. Don’t want to give away the position of the submarine to the Commies, after all. Part of the training is knowing and sensing the water density. He will keep and eye on the water temperature and the boat’s depth (there’s an outside water temperature and a depth gauge right next to him on a submarine) and open the throttles more slowly if the water’s less dense. He can tell by a sudden increase in shaft speed if the prop cavitates. Also, the sonar operator will pick it up and relay it to the captain who will quickly call aft and scream at the engineering watch officer. Cavitation is bad news.

But in Idaho, there is no ocean, so what’s the big deal? The deal is that we needed to be trained to deal with an actual ocean so they designed and installed a contraption on the end of the propeller shaft that had the ability to simulate water density changes. Basically, it provided a variable drag on the shaft in place of where the propeller would be and would cavitate like a real propeller, too. The Water Brake operator kept track of the “depth” changes the watch officer ordered and adjusted the water density to suit. It was a cool watch station – not much to do (which was really good back then) and no pressure, so to speak. But mostly, I stood watches inside the plant, like on the RPCP (reactor plant control panel).

First watch on the RPCP, I’m handed a list of the day’s drills (planned ‘emergencies’). Before I was qualified, my instructor would get the list and I’d be in the dark. Now, I was basically just filling up a watch billet while the other guys not yet qualified still had to do their stuff. As RPCP operator, I still had to do what was required to respond to the drills. And I was expected to know what that was now.

One of the drills was a large coolant leak from one of the loops and we’d be isolating it and going to single loop operation. No problem, I could do that and I had time to look up the procedure to refresh myself anyway. It called for systematically isolating the various subsystems off the main coolant loop in hopes of isolating the leak. I knew of course that that wasn’t going to get it, because the ‘leak’ was in one of the big loop pipes and I’d end up shutting the main coolant cutout valves for that loop.

But what I didn’t know, and they didn’t tell me, was that there was a subtle difference between the actual coolant leak procedure and the one to be used for drills. The difference was the presence of what was called the Hot-Loop Test Facility. The HTF was something connected to one of the loops that sampled the coolant which was analyzed in ways we never were told or cared about. It was an AEC research facility. Because it wasn’t part of a real sub reactor plant, it was to be regarded as not existing. But, if there was an actual coolant leak, it had to be considered as a source of the leak, too. What I didn’t know was that isolating it ruined whatever experiments were running with it and the AEC scientists would get majorly pissed.

As I said, they didn’t tell me. So when the drill started, I followed procedure and began isolating systems. During an emergency, you don’t ask permission to do stuff – you just do what you’re trained to do. I got to the HTF, announced that I was isolating it and shut the valves. About then I noticed that every non-trainee except myself was looking horrified and the watch officer immediately canceled the drill and ordered me to open the HTF valves. It was too late, of course. There would be pissed off scientists showing up real soon.

I got to talk with the ‘black box’ right after that with a couple of mysterious naval investigators present. They wanted to crucify me. Nobody present stood up for the fact that I was just following procedure and wasn’t told not to shut the HTF valves. The watch officer, a total dickhead, was particularly slimy in shifting the blame to me.

Eventually, they realized they couldn’t pin the blame on me despite their best efforts, But that scarred my naval career, in my mind. What happened to standing up for your team members? What happened to accountability? I may not have realized it right then, but after that, I never entertained another thought of re-enlisting in the navy.

I left Idaho not long after, never to see most my classmates, like Charlie and Steve, again. I was off to new adventures in Guam, Pearl Harbor and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Making Turns for Six Knots

I wrote this a long while ago:

Making turns for six knots … running two slow, two slow … endlessly, it seems. Punching a hole in the Pacific, daring the commies to start something. Tave slowly creeps lower and lower … like watching grass grow. Wonder if I’ll have to bump rods before Lippy gets here, but I don’t really care. Behind me, the EOOW is babbling about something. No one is listening. Wonder what the movie is tonight? Lot of time to wonder stuff.

Briinngg!

WTF? Flank?

Four pairs of eyes stare at the bell in unison for a nanosecond, maybe three. Yep, flank. Guess we’re off patrol.

Controlled pandemonium follows.

Mike whips the mains open like his life depends on it. A little more calmly, Ed grabs the TG’s and starts running them up towards sixty-one. With my left, I give the pot a head start. With my right, I turn 2C to fast and pull. EOOW is on the 2MC.

‘Ahead flank, maneuvering, aye’

‘Going to two fast, two fast’, I mention, like it wasn’t obvious. Makes the EOOW feel useful. He isn’t.

Tave no longer creeping down. More like plummeting. That’s OK. Makes the neutrons happy.

Rapid succession … gotta keep up with power. 1A to fast, 2A to fast, 1C to fast. We’re good. 1B off.

Ninety percent. Ninety five.

‘Ease off, Mike.’ He does.

One hundred. One hundred and two. Crap. What was the cutback during the last weekly? One-oh-three and an RCH, I think. I shove the poles in a bit and power levels out. Tave’s green again. Gotta watch for overshoot, but no worries. Ed tweaks the TG’s to sixty. Boat is shaking something fierce. Hope the boots hold.

‘Answering ahead flank, reactor power one hundred percent’. He likes talking on the 2MC.

EWS leans in on the chain.

‘What the fuck’s the hurry? Making a lotta noise.’

Lifer. I reach for my logs, but the growler … growls. It’s Kent. ASW is running in fast speed. Okie dokie.

Hope this doesn’t fuck up the movie.

Bells on a BB

Probably because of my experiences in a nuclear submarine engine room and nuclear power plants, I’m fascinated by engine rooms in general. And there are no better examples than the various WWII era warships parked as museums around the country. Mostly battleships, but also submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, these warships are open to the public and some allow access to their engine rooms.

USS Wisconsin

Going down (or back, if in a submarine) to the engine room requires a bit of dexterity that some can’t manage. Ladders are often near vertical and often have very hard head-level obstructions poised to open up a wound on your scalp if you’re not careful in a way most people aren’t accustomed to. One doesn’t expect going down a ‘staircase’ might involve having to duck your head around or under various metal protrusions seemingly placed just so to cause injury.

Hatchway and ladder down to USS Alabama engine room.

But if you do enter a WWII-era engine room, you’ll find yourself immersed in a steel jungle filled with heavy duty machinery, pipes, valves, cables (wires), gauges, switches and other things less easily categorized. Drain tanks, steam turbines wrapped in insulation, reduction gears, sightglasses. Trying to figure out how it all comes together to form a propulsion train capable of moving a massive ship is a challenge even for the initiated.

Engine room of USS Yorktown

The boilers burn bunker oil to boil water into steam; steam flows through large insulated pipes to the high pressure turbine and then to the low pressure turbine; the spent saturated steam is converted by the seawater-cooled condenser to water and then pumped back to the boliers to be reheated. Meanwhile, the turbines turn giant shafts that feed into reduction gears which convert the high speed rotation of the turbines to the much lower speed required for efficient operation of the propellors, which are at the end of long shafts that penetrate the ship’s hull. A battleship has four propellors. Myriad accessory equipment supports this basic operation – lube oil pumps to ensure bearings don’t fail; cooling systems to ensure parts don’t overheat; instruments to monitor all sorts of parameters such as pressure, temperature, shaft speed, tank level; electrical systems to supply pump motors, instruments, relays, etc. And much more.

Engine room of USS Alabama

The engine room also contains the turbine generators that produce electric power for the entire ship, evaporators to supply fresh water and refrigerant units for chilled water to keep the spaces cool. All this is stuffed into the four engine and boiler rooms of a battleship. One of the things that surely must come to mind while touring these spaces is how much design effort went into building one of these ships in such a way that it not only works, but works well enough to allow the ship to perform its primary mission: fight. Everything in the engine room is designed to serve the ship’s weapons systems and the crew that operates them, plus get the ship where it needs to be to fight the battles. Large warships are marvels of engineering.

I’ve toured five battleships: USS Alabama, USS North Carolina, USS New Jersey, USS Texas, USS Wisconsin

One cruiser: USS Olympia

One aircraft carrier: USS Yorktown

Three submarines: USS Drum, USS Clagamore, USS Becuna

Of all the WWII ships and boats (submarines should be referred to as boats, not ships), I like the Alabama and the Yorktown best, simply because their engine rooms were open to unescorted visitors. All but ignoring the rest of the ship, I’ve spent hours in each engine room, contemplating, taking photos of stuff no one but me photographs. Down on my knees looking for steam traps, peering around corners along cable trays, up close to equipment label plates, tracing steam lines, flipping switches, staring at valve operator gauges, I’m interested in the unglamorous details. The things, actually, that bring back memories of my time on the submarine. You’d be surprised how much similarity there is between a nuclear sub built in the ’60s and a WWII battleship.

USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown, steam pipes
USS Alabama, hydraulic lines
USS Alabama, cable trays
USS Alabama, steam trap
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Drum
USS Drum
USS Drum

Contrast that sort of experience with ships where engine room access is restricted or non-existent. Such as my recent visit to the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia. An Iowa class ship, the Wisconsin is apparently slightly larger than her sisters and thus has the distinction of being the largest battleship ever built by the US. Some increased length may be due to the transplanted bow that was attached after the original was severely damaged in a collision with a destroyer in the 1950’s. The donor bow came from the USS Kentucky, still being constructed in Newport News Shipyard (the Kentucky was never completed).

If you want to see the Wisconsin’s engine room, you must purchase a guided tour ticket. The Nauticus museum, where the battleship magnificently resides in downtown Norfolk and which also boasts other exhibits such as the excellent Hampton Roads Naval Museum, offers two guided tours – one to the engine room and one to the command and control centers. The extra price is worth it if you haven’t seen either. As it happened, on the day I visited I was the only one to sign up for the morning engine room tour, so it was just me, the navy veteran tour guide and his much younger assistant.

Any time two navy veterans get together in a setting like this, both have to establish their bonafides. His were evident by the fact that he was a docent on a battleship engine room tour but I learned that he was a boilerman, so would know his stuff. I volunteered that I was a reactor operator on a cold war era nuclear submarine and thus knew quite a bit about naval engine rooms. A nuclear reactor is just a high-tech way to boil water into steam. After that, the other stuff is pretty much the same. Plus I’d been on several of these older warships.

Then he called me a snipe.

Hmmph. Snipe is not a term of derision, I knew, but I was not a snipe. Sailors who worked in nuclear submarine engine rooms – ‘nukes’ – were not snipes. That was either a surface ship term or a non-nuke term for engine room folk (I have no idea whether nukes on aircraft carriers called themselves snipes, but I doubt it). I told him I had never heard that term applied to a navy nuke. Ever.

Part of the reason for referring to me as a snipe was undoubtedly because he could then relate the story of how engine room sailors got to being called snipes. Seems in the early days of steam ships, the ‘engineers’ who ran the engines on navy ships were looked down upon by regular sailors and abused accordingly. Until John Snipes demanded respect for his men, didn’t get it and then proceeded to have them shut down the boilers. Steam ships don’t operate well when the boiler is cold. Respect ensued.

I’m a nuke. Not a snipe.

Anyway, after we did the bona fides thing, he launched into the tour, thankfully leaving out a lot of basic stuff he knew I knew. The three of us – him in the lead, me following, she closing doors after us – descended into one of the boiler rooms. He stuck with his script – pointing out the big pieces and running a short video next to one of the boilers. All this while I really wanted to just go off on my own. I already knew what all the big pieces were and could identify most of the little ones, too. After the boiler room tour, we went up, over and down to the engine room. The two compartment did not have direct connection, something I hadn’t realized. That’s a damage control thing – if a boiler blows or floods, it doesn’t take out the corresponding engines, which can be crossfed from another boiler thus maintaining maximum speed capability for the ship.

I did get to see some boiler room and engine room art, though. None of it seemed to date back to WWII.

USS Wisconsin boiler room. ‘Boiler Room Betty’
USS Wisconsin engine room

The guide told me two interesting things – one I already knew but had forgotten and one I didn’t. Right next to the boiler feed area – where the ‘snipes’ work to fire the boilers according to how fast the captain or OOD wants to go (communicated via engine order telegraph from the bridge or conn and is called ‘answering bells’) , are a couple of periscopes. These scopes run all the way up to the top of the ship’s exhaust stacks and are used to gauge the proper mixture of air and oil in the furnaces. If the mix is off, the ship will be blowing black or white smoke, depending. That’s not good for boiler efficiency and it’s not good for stealth (yes, even battleships pay attention to stealth). You can see a plume of black smoke a long way off. So the snipes use the periscopes to adjust the mix to optimum. Cool.

USS Yorktown, engine order telegraph in the engine room. The red pointer indicates the ordered bell (speed) from the conn. The white pointer is turned by the throttleman – using a missing knob in the center – to acknowledge the ordered bell.

The other thing, which I’m sure he didn’t relate to everyone because few people would grasp the concept, was how the engine room throttleman and the boiler men coordinated their efforts to answer bells despite being in different compartments. If you’ve read my post on Keeping T ave in the Green Band, you’ll recall that with a nuclear-powered engine room, such as on a submarine, answering bells was a fairly straightforward process – the throttleman opened the throttles until the shaft speed was correct for whatever bell the OOD ordered. The reactor, with a little help from the reactor operator, ramped up or down in power automatically.  In a oil-fired boiler engine room, it’s not so easy. If the conn, for example, orders a speed increase from ahead 1/3 to ahead full, the boilerman sees the order come in on the engine order telegraph and must crank up the boiler using various oil nozzles so the fires burn hotter and produce more steam. That takes a while. Meanwhile, the throttleman, who also sees the ordered bell on his engine order telegraph, wants to open the main engine throttles to increase shaft and propeller speed. But he can’t do so until the boiler produces more steam – the main engine turbines want the stem at a particular pressure at all times. So how does he know when to open the throttles? He looks at the main steam pressure gauge in front of him. As the boiler ramps up, pressure goes up. As pressure goes up, he can open the throttles more, which increases turbine speed but also lowers pressure. It’s a coordinated dance between boilerman and throttleman, who are in separate compartments. They communicate by the language of steam pressure. To me, that is cool.

USS Wisconsin engine room. The engine order telegraph is just to the left of the larger throttle wheel; steam pressure is indicated on the black faced gauge at the top right.

I mentioned above that I had visited a cruiser but it’s not a WWII era warship: the USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, which took place in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The Olympia is a ‘protected cruiser’, which mean s it has an armored deck. Moored in Philadelphia next to a WWII submarine (USS Becuna) and a gorgeous 4-master (the Moshulu), the Olympia is a national treasure and a must-see experience for anyone interested in old warships.

USS Becuna and USS Olympia
USS Olympia
USS Olympia, with her forward 8″ guns trained on Moshula.

While the engine room was not open to visitors when I toured Olympia, the rest of the ship is quite impressive and in great shape. If you visit, you’ll see ornate fittings, lots of wood and some really spectacular 5″ guns on full display on the gun deck. The 8″ gun turrets unfortunately were also closed off.

5″ gun mount located in the wardroom
5″ guns on gun deck
5″ guns on gun deck
5″ gun
Smaller gun on top deck

One of my favorite photos taken on the Olympia isn’t pretty like those above. It’s a shot seeming to show one of the ship’s smaller guns (2.24 inch, according to Wikipedia) trained on an enemy warship across the river. That ship is the USS New Jersey, another of the WWII-era big battleships.

IMG_2246

IMG_2321
On the deck of the USS New Jersey. The USS Olympia can be seen across the river.
IMG_2309
USS New Jersey

Many of the old warship museums in the US are in financial trouble, including the Independence Seaport Museum, which owns the USS Olympia and at last information was looking for a buyer. Without more money, these important relics of our past will fall into even worse disrepair than many already are, or will be abandoned for scrap. That can’t happen. I encourage everyone to support the ships – go visit them. You won’t regret it.

Keeping T ave in the Green Band

dolphins

Cruising around the Pacific – under the Pacific, more specifically – in a nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying death machine sounds terribly exciting. It mostly isn’t.

On the USS Sam Houston (SSBN-609, Gold crew), our primary mission was to remain undetected and that didn’t allow for a lot of noisy charging around the ocean playing war games and such. We pretty much just set the cruise control to a few knots (clarification: there was no cruise control) and waited until called upon to annihilate a few cities and subsequently get nuked ourselves (launching missiles and remaining undetected are similarly incompatible activities). Sure, we’d regularly do drills to keep our game up – a lot of drills if we expected an ORSE when we got back in from patrol – but there was often a lot of routine time when on watch. And there were ship’s evolutions that interrupted routine: battle stations missile drill, casualty drills, field day, to name a few.

Mind you, I’m talking about watch-standing, where you have a specific station with specific duties to perform. When on watch, you didn’t do anything else other than watch-standing stuff. Non-watchstanders did everything else that needed to be done, which for us in the engineering department meant routine maintenance and repairs on our equipment. Off watch also was the time when you worked on your qualifications, your quals. Depending on your rating, you had different things you were expected to qualify for – watch stations, basically. And everybody on the boat had to qualify in submarines, earn their dolphins. All that took up a lot of your off watch hours. Whatever was left over was for eating, personal hygiene and sleep.  Especially sleep, the rarest, most prized of luxuries on a sub.

The mid-watch, between midnight and six, was the quietest time. I should mention here that time of day was a pretty weird concept on a submarine, for two reasons. The first is obvious: we didn’t see the sun from the time we left port to when we returned and there was no external effect that can be noticed while underway. It’s not like some characteristic of the ocean changed through the day. Submerged at patrol depth was same at noon as at midnight. Clocks were all we had, and frankly, that’s enough. It’s not that difficult to keep a rhythm with your body using just clocks, as long as the clocks were keeping time as normal. But the second reason was far more disturbing to your natural rhythms. Most people on the sub were on a three-man watch rotation and watches were six hours long. So your ‘day’ effectively was eighteen hours long. I’m here to tell you, that will fuck with your mind and body in ways you can’t expect. You get somewhat used to it, but never entirely. A couple of months at sea on that schedule also makes for an interesting time when you come back to port and go back to 24-hour days. But the boat itself stayed on a 24-hour schedule in terms of meals, which were the most tangible indicator of time of day, other than clocks. We had breakfast at 6 AM, lunch at noon, dinner at 6 PM and ‘mid-rats’ at midnight. Mid-rats (short for midnight rations) was typically leftovers or cold cut sandwiches. You ate before going on watch and immediately after.

After having been on the boat for a couple of patrols and completed my quals, my watch station normally was in maneuvering.  Maneuvering was the engineering control room where the reactor, main engines and electric plant were controlled. Four people were always on watch: the throttleman who was responsible for the main engines and thus the speed of the sub, the electrical operator who maintained the boat’s electrical power by controlling two steam turbine generators, two motor-generators sets and the battery, and the reactor operator who kept the reactor where it needed to be to provide steam power to the engines and TGs. The fourth guy was the EOOW, engineering officer of the watch, who didn’t have much of anything to do except keep the other three guys in line. I was a reactor operator.

The Smithsonian has a replica of a submarine maneuvering room similar to that on the Sam Houston. Throttles on the left, the RPCP (Reactor Plant Control Panel) in the middle, the EPCP (Electrical Plant Control Panel) on the right. The EOOW would sit in a higher chair overlooking the operators from behind. It was a cozy space. You can find photos of real maneuvering rooms which show it better but due to recent chatter on submarine forums about people getting in trouble by publishing photographs of classified areas, I’m not going to post any here. The entire engineering spaces on a US nuclear submarine were, and still are, classified areas.

consoles_full

Here’s the thing about pressurized water reactor power plants: if power demand is stable, such as when the Conn hasn’t ordered a change in speed for a while, and nothing else is going on, the plant tends to be pretty static. Temperatures and pressures don’t change and we really don’t have much to do other than take log readings every hour (Full disclosure: when the plant wasn’t changing, we often didn’t take logs every hour, completely in violation of regulations). About the only thing I had to do was occasionally bump the control rods to keep the average reactor primary temperature (T ave) in the ‘green band’. It would slowly drift down due to a couple of reactor physics factors, even if power demand was steady.

The reactor was actually self-regulating. If the throttleman opened up the throttles, allowing more steam to the main engines, reactor primary inlet temperature would drop a bit which increased the reactivity in the core, which increased reactor power, which then increased primary outlet temperature until a new equilibrium was reached. The two temperatures which made up T ave – T cold (reactor inlet temp) and T hot (reactor outlet temp)- would be further apart, a greater delta temperature across the core with the average still in the green band. When the throttles were opened (or closed), my job was to anticipate the power demand and adjust the control rods to keep T ave in the green band while the reactor settled itself out. I might also have to shift the main coolant pumps to fast speed if power demand exceeded that which slow speed could accommodate. If for some reason the Conn ordered a big increase in speed – say going from ahead one third to ahead flank – and if the three maneuvering operators had their shit together, you’d see a choreographed set of actions. The throttleman would whip the  throttle wheel open as fast as he could, the electrical operator would simultaneously start cranking up the TG speed in anticipation of the reactor operator switching to fast speed pumps, which required quite a bit more electrical power. After the pump switch, which happened in seconds, I’d grab the control rod shim switch and start pulling out the control group, also anticipating the power demand and keeping T ave from dropping too much out of the green band. After the main engines were up to speed, we’d then start backing off on the TGs and the rods to avoid overshoot. It would be like two minutes of excitement. That didn’t happen very often while we were on patrol status because a rapid increase in propeller shaft speed would cause cavitation, which is noisy. The Russians might hear us and we couldn’t have that.

Mid watch, then. Not much going on. Being rebellious young men who were easily bored, sitting in the maneuvering room watching the gauges not move tended to be inadequate entertainment and the EOOW often failed miserably in his primary duty of keeping us in line. Hell, the EOOW was bored, too. So we’d do things to amuse ourselves. Some of those things weren’t actually in keeping with regulation and good watch-standing decorum. For example, if the EOOW was a junior officer and thus subject to being fucked with, a couple of us might simulate loud gay sex. Or all three of us. Said junior officer would suffer a bit of apoplexy but would eventually realize what was going on. I’d say unlike some of the non-nuke officers (you had to be a nuke to stand any watch in engineering, including EOOW), the nukes were almost universally regular guys and we got on well with them.

The reactor operators in particular, but also the maneuvering room operators, had a bit of a tradition dating back to the sixties when the boat was first commissioned. During mid-watch, we liked to remove the lamicoid labels from the RPCP and write nuggets of anti-navy wisdom on the back. There were a lot of labels and because they were attached only by small screws, taking them off was easy. Sometimes we’d get a little carried away and the RPCP would briefly look inoperable what with all the parts removed. Reading things written by people from years past felt semi-religious, like you were reading ancient scrolls. A few of the labels were quite big so one could write a lot. By the time I was on the boat (late ’70s), not much writing space was left but I managed a few tidbits of my own. Mind you, we had to be sure the captain or other intruder didn’t pop in for an unannounced visit, so we had a system whereby the AMR2UL watch would warn us if he came through. If we had the panel taken apart too much, we’d have been screwed as it only took twenty seconds or so to make your way from the forward part of AMR2UL to maneuvering.

Later in my time on the Sam Houston, I got so bored that I took to welcoming drills during watch. Casualty procedures were not all that complicated or extensive, so once you knew them and gained confidence, there wasn’t the previous dread of a drill where you might fuck up. Fast scram recoveries in particular  were actually fun. They say that navy nuclear reactors are hot rods as compared to the bigger, much less flexible commercial power reactors and it’s true. A fast scram recovery was like drag racing. Imagine taking control of a nuclear reactor that just unexpectedly scrammed (shut down) and bringing it back up to power as fast as you could. The idea is that in a battle situation – or worse, if the boat is sinking – you need to keep the main engines on line so you maintain forward speed. The turbines drew steam at such a rate that the reactor’s primary system cooled pretty rapidly and would be too cool to produce useful steam in short order. So the reactor had to come back to power quickly. We even had a ‘battle short’ switch that would disable all reactor protection functions, including whatever might have caused the scram in the first place. Better risking a damaged reactor than having the boat sink. Battle short wasn’t used during drills.

During my last patrol when I was the senior reactor operator, I volunteered to qualify for the machinist mates’s watch in AMR2LL. M division was short-handed, unlike us reactor operators, and were having to stand port and starboard watches there. That’s six hours on watch, six off. Very grueling. But I also wanted to do it because the emergency diesel generator was in AMR2LL and it was cool to operate that beast. Plus, the steam generator sampling station was there, so I got to play with chemicals. The steam generators were the boilers that transferred primary system heat to the secondary steam system for the turbines. Because of the metallurgy involved, it was important for the water chemistry in the SG’s to be maintained within tight limits. AMR2LL watch would periodically draw a sample, test it for pH and a couple of other things and then add chemicals to adjust the balance. Much more fun than keeping T ave in the green band.

Despite what I’ve written here, my time on the submarine wasn’t just boredom laced with periodic bursts of drag racing excitement and some mad chemistry. It was frankly a miserable experience all told, which is why I got out of the navy as soon as I could. But that’s another story. I made six deterrent patrols on the Sam Houston in all. That was enough. I still have dreams about being on the boat – having to make one more patrol.

Shortly after I left the boat it was converted to a ‘slow attack’ and had its missiles removed to comply with one of the SALT treaties. The Sam Houston was re-designated as SSN-609 and operated as a SEAL insertion vessel for a while before being deactivated and struck from the rolls active ships. It was dismantled and scrapped in 1992. The reactor compartment is now in a disposal area at Hanford Nuclear site in Washington state.

We’re Basically Flooding

As any submariner will attest, few things scare you as much as the 1MC blaring “FLOODING IN THE ENGINE ROOM!” Submarines, you see, don’t float particularly well and when more water is coming in than is being pumped out, you become concerned, trending towards frightened.

Date: circa 1978

Location: somewhere east of Guam, over the Marianas Trench

Setting: onboard the fleet ballistic missile submarine USS Sam Houston (SSBN609)

There was no such 1MC announcement of impending doom. There were no semi-panicked sailors rushing about attempting to stave off said doom. No,  all was quiet in AMR2LL. Well, as quiet as it gets while underway what with pumps running, steam and water coursing through pipes. Which is not remotely quiet, truth be told.

But we were still flooding. At least I thought so and judging by the concerned expressions and comments of my fellow nukes, I wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that opinion. There was definitely more water – a lot more water – coming in through that crappy drain pump shaft seal, as well as other holes in the boat, than the pump could expel outside the hull. Soon, we would all die a horrible, crushing death.

So why no 1MC, no panic? Why weren’t we blowing ballast and driving to the surface? Simple – the boat was at test depth to test the integrity of the systems, including the seawater piping and pump shaft seals. We did this after every refit, which occurred three or four times a year. The captain would take the boat as deep as operationally allowed and the crew would check for leaks. And leak the boat did, every time. The enormous pressure at depth was just too much for the seals and pumps to resist entirely.

Normally, this evolution was routine. Dive deep, note where the water was coming in and how fast, take her back up. This time, however, as we stood around watching the bilge water depth increasing, we weren’t coming up. The boat remained at test depth for a really long time, much longer than required to do the leak test. And still the water poured in. We were getting concerned.

Let me digress a bit and explain a fundamental characteristic of our crew. You could divide us into groups based on a couple of things – the nukes vs the forward pukes being the clearest. Nukes are engineers; everyone else isn’t. But you could also divide us, albeit less clearly, by our love for the navy. You had the ‘diggits’ who were in for life and you had the dissidents who were actively counting DTGs (days to go). I was in the latter group. There were more diggits among the non-nukes but we had our share, too. One thing diggits liked to do was re-enlist and one thing the captain (aka Chief Diggit) liked to do was make a show of re-enlistment ceremonies.

Let’s get back to the flooding. Why were we still at test depth? Why, the captain was conducting re-enlistment ceremonies in the control room. While we were basically flooding back aft.

My wife tells me that I told her that I reacted somewhat emotionally when we learned what was going on. The story goes that I expressed my displeasure with the captain quite forcefully over the whole episode. I don’t remember doing that but it sounds good.

In any case, we made it back from the depths alive. It might even have been the time the captain did an emergency blow from test depth. That was an experience. At great depth, the high pressure air banks don’t have nearly the ummph to displace all the water from the ballast tanks. So the boat doesn’t rise very fast at first. In fact, it’s almost imperceptible. But slowly, the air in the ballast tanks wins the battle with the water and the boat’s rise picks up speed. And also adopts a serious ‘up’ angle. By the time we hit the surface, the sub had enough angle and impetus to drive a third or so of its length out of the water before crashing back down on the surface. It’s fun. You can see videos of subs doing this on the internet, and I believe also in the movie Hunt For Red October.

So, yeah. Test depth. Loads of fun.