week after departing her homeport of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 18 March 1999, the
Sturgeon-class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Hawkbill (SSN-666) transited the
Aleutian Islands and dove beneath the ice of the central Bering Sea to begin an historic
eight-week Arctic research mission. Ahead, the daunting navigational hazards of the Bering
Strait and the Chukchi Sea awaited Hawkbills Commanding Officer, CDR Robert H.
Perry, his 124-man crew, and a small embarked team of civilian scientists. SCICEX-99, the
fifth Navy-civilian Submarine Arctic Science Expedition, was underway. CDR Perrys
initial destination was a small temporary camp located approximately 1,000 miles beyond
the Bering Sea on Arctic drift ice 150 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska the
so-called APLIS, or Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station.
The 1999 expedition marked Hawkbills second cruise in support of a
five-year collaborative research and data-collection program sponsored by the Navys
submarine community, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Science
Foundation. The 292-foot submarine had participated in the highly successful SCICEX-98 the
previous summer and had been specially outfitted then with new sensors and systems that
dramatically increased her ability to operate safely under ice, map the Arctics sea
bed, and collect scientific data and samples. Perry, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval
Academy, was also in command for that expedition.
A detailed, nine-phase science plan guided Hawkbills operations for
data collection throughout the cruise, and a portion of Hawkbills torpedo room had
been converted into a laboratory to house much of the instrumentation required to support
the expedition. Most of the scientific tests and experiments planned for SCICEX-99
supported the study of the Arctic Oceans geophysical, chemical, and biological
properties. Scientists also were keenly interested in updating their knowledge and data
relating to ocean warming in the Arctic region a growing concern.
Hawkbills cruise was also unusual in another respect. The submarine
carried an urn with the cremated remains of Dr. Waldo K. Lyon a reknowned Navy
civilian scientist for 55 years, champion of Arctic submarine operations, and founder and
long-time director of the Navys San Diego-based Arctic Submarine Laboratory (ASL).
Lyons family had requested the Navy to transport his ashes to the Arctic for burial
at sea, since he had deployed on Hawkbill in 1973 during the ships first Arctic
A White-Knuckle Experience
As Hawkbill made good on her northerly track at 5 knots, the ice overhead formed into
clusters of small floes aligned in strips several hundred yards wide. These floes
compressed rapidly into solid pack ice with an average thickness of 6 feet. The remaining
transit to the APLIS was, in CDR Perrys words, a real challenge for the
entire crew, as the water shoaled quickly to an average depth of 160 feet adding a
further complication to the thick mantle of ice overhead. Indications of massive ice
ridges 800 yards ahead some extending to a depth of 100 feet would suddenly
appear on the submarines forward-looking, ice-finding sonar.
Perry ordered his submarine, then cruising at a depth of 125 feet, to hug the
ocean floor a scant 20 to 30 feet off the bottom. With the submarine measuring 52 feet
between the bottom of its hull and the top of its sail, there were times when the ice
cover would pass as close as 17 feet overhead. Conditions worsened in the Chukchi Sea as
walls of ice blocked the submarines path requiring expert undersea
navigation, constant maneuvering, and a light touch on all controls.
Crewmen on Hawkbill described this transit as a real white-knuckle
experience. Many of them said it was the greatest shiphandling challenge they had
experienced one that, to be completed safely, required everyone to perform
flawlessly minute by minute for days on end.
For Hawkbills ice-finding sonar to work properly and to avoid
grounding below or collision with the ice above it was necessary to maintain depth
within one foot and with zero-angle on the boat. The young enlisted helmsmen
and planesmen held the submarine precisely on depth throughout frequent and sometimes
radical maneuvers to avoid ice ridges and to locate passages around them. The crew
handled the whole evolution very calmly and professionally it was a total team
effort to maintain focus for eight days, Perry related.
The variation in water density caused by fresh water from melting ice and the
Arctics unique temperature fluctuations dramatically affected maneuverability as
Hawkbill sought to maintain neutral buoyancy. A change in salinity of just one part per
thousand causes a buoyancy shift of nearly 8,000 pounds in the Sturgeon-class attack
submarine. A seasoned chief petty officer, serving on each watch bill as Chief of the
Watch, assisted ship-control efforts by maintaining Hawkbill at neutral buoyancy despite
the many variations affecting her trim.
Talent, Teamwork, and Training
As the submarine progressed carefully and steadily north, the Officer of the Deck
concentrated on ice-avoidance sonar readings giving the helmsman frequent orders to
weave the boat through a maze of jagged ice keels extending randomly below the ice.
Hawkbills navigation team plotted the boats position meticulously along her
circuitous path as the diving officer of the watch carefully monitored the depth of water
beneath the keel. From the time the submarine submerged in the Bering Sea on 25 March
until her surfacing at the APLIS ice station on 3 April, there was no opportunity for the
team to obtain a navigational fix from above.
As always, sonar technicians in the submarines sonar room served as the
eyes and ears of the ship. Throughout the transit, the submarines OD-161 Topsounder
high-frequency sonar was operated continuously to measure ice draft the depth below
sea level to which the ice extends. A petty officer assigned to the polynya
plot kept track of overhead ice features so that Hawkbill could be surfaced
immediately should the need arise. The Russian word polynya is used in Arctic
parlance to describe open water or the thin ice of recently refrozen open water between
thicker ice floes a potential safe haven in the event of a submerged emergency.
Navigation and safe ship handling were further complicated in the Chukchi Sea
by a scarcity of data on the nautical charts issued to Hawkbill at the beginning of the
cruise. Unlike other areas of the worlds oceans, there has been no comprehensive
oceanographic mapping of the polar basin. Surprises were unavoidable. CDR Perry described
how Hawkbill had unexpectedly encountered an uncharted, flat-topped dormant volcano
towering 200 to 300 meters above the floor of the Northwind Rise during a later
phase of undersea-survey operations. Such valuable observations and measurements, recorded
by Hawkbills sea-floor characterization system, will be used to update nautical
charts of the region.
Hawkbills CO offered high praise for his crew. I have never been
so proud of any crew, and their efforts have proved what a well-trained submarine crew can
accomplish, Perry said. They functioned as such a team I cant believe it
as far as Im concerned, theyre all true American heroes, said the
Aiea, Hawaii, resident.
The Navys top leadership also had high praise for Hawkbill following an
underway embarkation in early April. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig said he was
greatly impressed by the technical nature of the crews accomplishment, their esprit,
and their sense of mutual commitment. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay L. Johnson
said that Hawkbills Sailors had demonstrated extraordinary versatility
in executing a non-traditional mission. Their hard work and training paid off,
frame of an Eskimo umiak boat and whale bones on the frozen shoreline of the
Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow, Alaska, in April 1999.
Ice Camp Lyon: A Triumph of the
Once clear of the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Seas perilous ice ridges, Hawkbill
commenced the science plan on its transit to the APLIS ice station, which had been
established by the staff of the Navys Arctic Submarine Laboratory and the Applied
Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington (APL-UW). CAPT Jeffrey A. Fischbeck,
ASLs director and the Officer in Tactical Command for SCICEX-99, headed up
operations from this small collection of heated tents and prefabricated plywood shelters
named Ice Camp Lyon in honor of the distinguished Navy scientist. ASL supports the
Fleet as the Navys center of excellence for submarine-related Arctic operations,
development support, and technical expertise.
The Navy has operated ice camps for more than 20 years in support of Arctic
research, but the SCICEX-99 station was the first one to be built in five years. On scene
to direct operations, CAPT Fischbeck credited the ice camp with providing valuable
experience to his staff of 16 uniformed and civilian personnel, in addition to enabling
important research during the expedition. Fischbeck also praised his staff and personnel
from APL-UW for planning the stations deployment in less than three months.
The ice camp provided Navy and civilian scientists with additional
flexibility and more experimental opportunities during the 1999 expedition. A
typical SCICEX cruise lasts for more than ten weeks, Dr. Dennis Conlon, ONRs
program manager for SCICEX-99, explained. Thats a commitment of time that few
researchers with research and teaching obligations can make.
Scientific specialists rotated aboard Hawkbill on several occasions greatly
increasing the scope of the research. Four discrete Arctic scientific-research and
experimentation projects were also conducted at the ice station that would otherwise not
have been possible.
One significant experiment, Arctic Climate Observations Using Underwater
Sound (ACOUS), used a 20-Hz underwater sound signal from an autonomous source off Franz
Josef Land to observe the temperature structure of the Arctic Ocean. Dr. Peter
Mikhalevsky, principal investigator of the project and the ice camps science
director, deployed a vertical hydrophone array through a hole in the ice to receive these
transmissions. His instrumentation measured the average Arctic Ocean temperature along
the 2,800-kilometer propagation path. A team from APL-UW also obtained conductivity,
temperature, and depth profiles of the ocean at the ice camp.
Secretary Danzigs impressions of Ice Camp Lyon were especially vivid.
There is a sense that in the most austere and coldest physical environment, human
beings can create a warm, safe, and protective human environment, Danzig said.
It was true on the ice camp and even more true on the submarine, he continued.
It is really a triumph of the human spirit.
Waldo K. Lyon:
Father of the
Spurred by the wartime imperative to respond to German Arctic submarine operations during
the Second World War, Dr. Waldo K. Lyon began a lifes work in Arctic research in
support of undersea warfare. From the time he founded the Navys Arctic Submarine
Laboratory in 1941 until his retirement from the ranks of Navy civilian scientists 55
years later, he pushed almost single-handedly for research into the design
features needed to enable nuclear-powered submarines to operate in the Arctic.
Lyons accomplishments were recognized by numerous awards, including the
Presidents Medal for Distinguished Federal Service the highest federal award
for a U.S. government civilian employee. In the words of William M. Leary, his biographer,
Lyon was the first among equals responsible for the development of the
under-ice submarine. Dr. Lyon died 5 May 1998 at the age of 84, and his remains were
transported by USS Hawkbill to the North Pole a year later for burial at sea. His beloved
Arctic Submarine Laboratory continues its mission today as a detachment of Submarine
Development Squadron FIVE, based in San Diego, California.
Learys biography, Under Ice published by Texas A&M University Press
earlier this year, is a masterful account of Lyons contributions to Arctic research
and U.S. Navy under-ice operations. CDR Perry, USS Hawkbills Commanding Officer,
required all officers in his wardroom to read chapter seven of Learys book a
description of USS Sargos hazardous 1960 Arctic cruise prior to deploying for
Breaking the Ice for Science
Aided by images from her upward-looking video display, Hawkbill was guided acoustically by
ice-camp personnel to an area of thinner ice approximately 400 yards from Ice Camp Lyon.
Accompanied by the prolonged groans and roar of rending ice, the submarines
black-steel sail rose slowly and majestically from beneath the surface on 3 April
shattering the frozen stillness of the Arctic landscape. Ice was quickly cut and shoveled
away from the submarines after hatch to permit Dr. Margo Edwards, a geologist from
the University of Hawaii, and her team of scientists to embark for a weeks survey of
the Chukchi Cap region. Edwards served as the SCICEX-99 expeditions chief scientist.
An elaborate schedule of scientific research and data gathering was planned
for Hawkbills Arctic expedition. Its primary objectives centered on experiments and
data collection in four areas:
- Mapping of the Arctic Ocean floor to test the hypothesis that
Pleistocene ice sheets once covered the shallow-ocean
areas near the Chukchi Cap
- An analysis of ancient plate boundaries and other geophysical
aspects of the Lomonosov Ridge
- Measurement of carbon compounds and other nutrients in waters
off Alaskas north coast
- Mapping of the Arctic Oceans climatology using water
temperature and salinity measurements
obtained from a joint U.S.-Russian experiment
investigating Arctic Ocean warming
Many scientists were especially interested in the last of
these. The polar oceans drive several important processes governing the earths
climate processes critical to global-ocean circulation and the regulation of
earths weather patterns. During the past decade, the Arctic has changed
significantly. Present estimates are that the mass of Arctic ice has decreased by 20
percent, while near-surface sea-water temperature in the central Arctic Basin has
increased by over 1 degree Centigrade, and ocean salinity has decreased by nearly one
percent. Civilian scientists, rotated aboard Hawkbill, were particularly enthusiastic in
finding evidence that a large ice sheet had covered and eroded shallow areas in the Arctic
Basin approximately 10,000 years ago. That was very exciting, said Edwards.
On 3 May, following a highly detailed geophysical survey of the Lomonsov
Ridge, CDR Perry surfaced Hawkbill at the North Pole the last submarine that will
do so during the 20th century. In accordance with the wishes of the Lyon family, the
Hawkbill crew conducted a solemn burial-at-sea ceremony there to honor Waldo Lyon. His
ashes were laid to rest in the Arctic region that he had labored a lifetime to understand.
Perry made a short progress report by hand-held satellite telephone to Chief
of Naval Operations ADM Jay L. Johnson at the Pentagon and then ordered, Dive!
Hawkbill again slipped beneath the oceans ice-covered surface. Ahead, two weeks of
SCICEX-99 research remained before she departed from beneath the Arctic ice in the
Norwegian Sea the submarines first venture into the Atlantic Ocean in her
28-year commissioned history. Well-deserved port visits in England and Florida followed,
and then Hawkbill continued her homeward-bound voyage to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal
and the conclusion of an epic and
historic final cruise.
An Explosion of Information
Hawkbills unique capability to operate autonomously anywhere that depth permits in
the Arctic Basin, plus its speed, stability, and inherent silence make it an ideal
scientific-research instrument. The capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines have
enabled an exponential increase in scientific knowledge about the Arctic Ocean reaped
through SCICEX, concluded RADM Paul G. Gaffney, the Chief of Naval Research.
JO1 Rodney Furry, USN
from a National Geographic Society video team interview
USS Hawkbills Commanding Officer, during SCICEX-99 for
a broadcast later this year.
The Navys senior submariner, ADM Frank
L. Skip Bowman, Direc-tor of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, echoed that
view following his embarkation on Hawkbill in April with the Secretary of the Navy and the
Chief of Naval Operations. When we left, we all knew SCICEX-99 was a home run in the
making, he said.
Dr. Edwards was also emphatic in describing the accomplishments of the SCICEX
series. We have increased what we know about the bottom of the Arctic Ocean by two
or three orders of magnitude literally. It is just an explosion of information
compared to what we had before, she asserted. In her judgment, years of work will be
required to analyze and assess the five SCICEX expeditions results.
ONR will continue making important contributions to Arctic research through
its High Latitude Dynamics Research Program and other projects. The National/Navy Ice
Center in Suit-land, Maryland, will also continue as the Nations lead Arctic
environmental forecast center, and ONR is making investments to improve its operational
forecasting abilities. We must work harder to know exactly what future the Arctic
holds, Dr. Conlon said, because the effects are worldwide and
End of an Era?
Hawkbills 1999 Arctic expedition marks the end of the current series of yearly
SCICEXs and the beginning of a period of some uncertainty. As Submarine Force assets
continue to draw down, it will be more difficult to assign Fleet submarines to cooperative
undersea scientific expeditions with civilian researchers. RADM Albert H. Konetzni Jr.,
Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleets Submarine Force, describes the problem of
scheduling time for operations like SCICEX. Were going from 96 submarines in
1990 to a projected 50 submarines by the year 2003. Planners are already asking which
valid missions the remaining submarines can fulfill and which missions will go
unfulfilled, he noted. Although long-term prospects are tenuous, there is a
potential opportunity for the Sturgeon-class submarine USS L. Mendel Rivers (SSN-686) to
participate in a prospective SCICEX-2000 in the fall of next year. Regardless of the final
outcome, the crew of USS Hawkbill now joins the long line of Navy men and women who have
had a unique and unforgettable Arctic experience while contributing to our scientific
understanding of that remote and inhospitable region.
CAPT Peterson, is the Senior Editor of the Navy
Leagues Sea Power Magazine, in which a longer version of this article will appear.
LCDR Werner is the Public Affairs Officer at COMSUBPAC. Both men participated in
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