By Philip N. Ledoux
January 31, 2005
How could a submarine run into an undersea mountain?
In the mid or late 1980ies we had a sub crash into a submarine
mount off the Azores, with all hands lost. It was superb "PR"
covering up the potential start of WW III. The Ruskies had fired an atomic
tipped torpedo and took it down. Someone didn't calculate well because the
Ruskie sub that fired the torpedo went down too.
And in the 1960 or thereabouts, I was assigned to the Squalus
being overhauled in the Portsmouth Navy Yards. I never got there because
someone else snarfed my assignment. Was I ever grateful to that snarffer
when the Russians torpedoed it while on sea trials. The "PR" said:
major sea valve gave way. Ha, I met 3 sonarmen (one of my specialties) who
would all bet the farm that they heard the torpedo take her out. All tapes
(civilian and navy) were confiscated upon their entry to port; any trace
chance to hear and record the event were obliterated for posterity.
In the case of SSN 711, she made it home, so this is a horse
of a different color. As explained in a prior analysis of working crew vs.
officer crew on the big atomic subs, it is the transplantation of "politics"
of the surface Navy into submarines that is the fatal flaw in the operation
of the atomic submarine fleet.
Fathometers look down and only tell how far above the ocean
bottom a ship or cruising submarine actually is. As on land, the approach
to a submerged mountain is a gradual rise and hardly noticeable on the fathometer
trace, especially if it is around "watch change" time (I take
over your job for four hours). Occasionally there is no "slope"
for warning, just as some mountains rise abruptly on land. This is a good
I have no idea how deep the waters are around and South of
Guam. In general, the Pacific waters are quite deep by most standards. Surface
ships "play the game" of odds often. What are the odds of meeting
another ship in the middle of the Pacific? One in many thousands. Tramp
vessels play these odds once they are out of the main shipping lanes. I
was second in charge of the CIC (Combat Information Center) on a submarine
tender affectionately called "The Great Grey Goose"; and yes,
those floating machine shops do manage to pull themselves off a mountain
of coffee grinds and float out to sea and exercise (only after a month of
practice before casting lines several times). The Chief in charge of CIC
quietly informed me that he had never been in a CIC in his life.
In submarines we purposefully set up a collision course and
on the see-through chart board I recognized a "collision course"
in the makings. My crew were well polished so I could spend time giving
the Chief a quick liberal education. Finally he reported it on the provision
that if it were false, I would loose a rank! (Surface craft thinking.) And
then the Chief in turn had one hell of a time convincing the Duty Officer
on the command deck to take evasive action. I was expecting a "karunch"
but the old goose slowly responded to full rudder to port. It was a miss
by a hundred yards; but that is about an inch to spare in a potential fender-bender
on the local streets. Blinking light signals, radio, everything was tried
to contact the freighter to no avail. On she chugged on a course straight
as an arrow from the time CIC radar picked her up until she was out of range
again. Everyone was probably sound asleep!
Well, you don't fall asleep on watch in the Navy! But the
odds are played often. Minimal observers on decks, lax routines in the radar
rooms when there is no activity around. What chance is there of an uncharted
island popping up in deep waters? Full speed ahead if there is R & R
in the offing. And so, it really isn't foolhardy chance taking, it is calculated
odds. Is it done in submarines? Not in the old fleet boats I road. Nothing
was left to chance. And nothing was assumed. But, as I pointed out previously,
Surface craft thinking has been transplanted onto the atomics long ago.
The SSN 711 was hauling ass at 30 knots, but not "flank" and most
likely there was plenty of water below her riding at 500 feet. The undersea
earthquake and resultant tsunami had occurred a short time before the disaster.
It is not impossible for other rippling to have occurred along the Pacific
Rim Of Fire and buckled the ocean floor, creating a one in a million (or
billion) chance of a submarine meeting a newly created uncharted sea-mount.
Surface "sailors" play the odds with some certitude of safety.
Transfer that to submarines, and you have the disaster of the SSN 711.
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