A Dive's Eye View

by ETCS(SS) James P. Barnes, USN

 

"Man Battlestations Missile for weapons system readiness exercise. Simulate spinning up missiles fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen."

The 1MC provided a bolt of adrenaline which catapulted me out of my chair in the Chief's quarters. I stowed my thankfully empty coffee mug and rushed up the two ladders to the Control Room, rolling down my sleeves. The ship was a bustle of activity, as all around me men scurried to their battlestations watch assignments in the charged atmosphere. Seconds later, in the Control Room after a quick turn over from the Chief on watch, a rapid scan of my indications, and a deep breath I stationed myself as Diving Officer of the Watch.

"Dive, prepare to hover at one three zero feet."

"Prepare to hover at one three zero feet, Dive aye."

My tasking was simple. Take eighteen-thousand tons of submarine and suspend it at ordered depth with less than three degrees of angle and a knot-and-a-half of headway. The Diving Officer of the Watch's job is to reach and maintain ordered depth using planes, angle, and speed. At anything slower than about three knots, the fairwater and stern planes do little except change the ship's angle, so they're not too effective in controlling depth. My only resource was also my worst enemy: the turbulent and temperamental Pacific Ocean. A TRIDENT-class SSBN is 560 feet long, 70 feet tall, and 42 feet wide. Next to the pier in Bangor, USS Michigan (SSBN-727) is a large, ominous, and incredible piece of machinery. Beneath the awesome fury of the Pacific, however, she's as insignificant as a bug in a wading pool. In heavier sea states, the powerful force of the swells on the surface can draw a suction on the ship's huge missile deck and pull her from 200 feet to "the roof" in mere seconds. My tasking is simple, but not easy. By utilizing the ocean's water as variable ballast, I can adjust her weight by flooding to, or pumping from, ballast tanks onboard. My two major systems for adjusting the buoyancy of the ship with variable ballast are the Trim and Drain System and the Hovering System. The Hovering System allows me to bring onboard or offload one thousand pounds of water per second, and it's an extremely fast and reliable way of adjusting the weight of the ship to stay on depth. However, part of the Mini-DASO training requires our guests from Strategic Systems Programs (SP-205) to insert simulated faults into the system to test the Ship's Control Party's ability to handle faults and emergencies.

"Set condition 1SQ, this is the Captain, this is an exercise."

Once on ordered depth, the Officer of the Deck will use backing bells, or speed orders, to quickly get the ship at one-and-a-half knots or less depending on sea state and ordered depth. At two knots, the Hovering System can be placed in automatic, and the ship's computer analyzes the difference between actual and ordered depth, the rate of depth changes, and depth acceleration. Using this information, electrical signals are sent to the control valves for the massive hovering proportional valves, and ballasting water is flooded or drained as necessary to adjust error, rate and acceleration.

But not today. The first "problem" appeared…

"Sea one," the huge sea valve on Hovering Tank number one had "failed," and my Chief of the Watch (COW) quickly shut the sea and backup valves and turned off the hovering pump. Then, the COW had the abbreviated order "sea one" passed on the sound-powered phone circuit to manually override the valve, while I informed the Officer of the Deck of the casualty. A watchstander in Machinery On the Dive Stand aboard USS Michigan                                Two overrode the valve, and the COW brought the tank back online. All of this occurred in seconds. "Loss of 28 volts." Hovering had to be shut down completely, and I now had to use the Trim and Drain system to maintain depth. "Auxiliary Electrician Forward, investigate the loss of 28 volts." I was losing depth control due to the casualty, and we were sinking uncontrollably. The forward trim and drain pumps were doing their best, but their capacities were not even a quarter of the Hovering System's. I appeared much calmer than I actually felt. "One eight zero feet. Officer of the Deck, I need speed."

On the Dive Stand aboard            
USS Michigan         

The Officer of the Deck ordered ahead two-thirds cavitate. The Throttleman in Maneuvering manipulated the throttles while acknowledging the order on the Engine Order Telegraph. "One nine zero feet." Our descent was arrested before we reached the maximum hovering depth of 200 feet, but it took two-and-a-half knots to catch her. The ship was no longer within launch parameters. I felt as though the entire ship was waiting for me, and it actually felt as if the very success or failure of the simulated strike rested on my shoulders.

"Permission to fire removed. Dive is not at 1SQ."

The feeling of aloneness vanished as quickly as a wisp of smoke, as I suddenly realized that we would succeed because of The Team. My best friends at the moment were my nuclear-trained shipmates in Maneuvering who were providing me with the speed necessary to stop the ship from sinking like a stone. The Officer of the Deck was responsive to my bell requests. Probably my most valuable resource was my Chief of the Watch, a First Class Auxiliaryman whose systems knowledge was based on years of experience. The Auxiliary Electrician Forward was frantically scrambling to troubleshoot and fix the Hovering System. Even the Stern Planesman, one of the more junior sailors onboard, was anxiously monitoring the Ballast Control Panel for signs of trouble. It took two precious minutes and a backing bell to achieve neutral buoyancy and get the ship back within parameters. We tweaked the levels in the trim tanks to get us back to 130 feet. "A hundred and thirty feet, 1.4 knots, zero angle." We were back in business.

"Weapons, Conn, you have permission to fire".

"Emergency report, emergency report! Fire in Missile Compartment Third Level. Fire in the Laundry!" The simulated fire in the Missile Compartment provided an added element of stress to the countdown and simulated launch. All of the personnel in the Missile Compartment and the Ship's Control Party had seconds to don Emergency Air Breathing masks, or EAB's. The masks may have muffled our voices, but our communications, both face-to-face and on the phone circuits, were unimpeded. The faults were coming with machine-gun rapidity now. Our 28 volts had been restored by replacing a blown fuse, but the backup valve on tank two had failed, and we were maintaining differential pressure on tank one manually, in addition to overriding the sea valve.


"...we were the finest team in the world on that day, better than the
'69 Celtics, the '72 Dolphins, and the '98 Yankees. It was a wonderful thing
to observe and be a part of."

 

A Ballistic Missile Submarine at battlestations is a carefully orchestrated dance of apparent chaos, with multiple reports coming in simultaneously to the Commanding Officer on the Conn. The Missile Control Center was such a flurry of activity that you would have thought the location of the fire was MCC instead of the Laundry. The Captain's unenviable job was to sort through and prioritize this overwhelming amount of information while maintaining the "Big Picture." The resulting chaos had so many variables and participants that it appeared to be a large-scale improvisation.

Improv? Chaos? Not even close.

Our teams had spent hours and weeks training together, and in the Mini-DASO scenario, they all fit together perfectly like the fully interlocking pieces of a puzzle. Every man onboard that day knew what was expected and gave a hundred and ten percent. USS Michigan is a wonder of technology, but her soul is the flesh and blood that operates her. In my humble opinion, we were the finest team in the world on that day, better than the '69 Celtics, the '72 Dolphins, and the '98 Yankees. It was a wonderful thing to observe and be a part of.

"Seventeen, away".

"Seventeen away, normal comp. Dive, last missile away."

I could see it in the eyes of my teammates, a sense of pride and accomplishment. They had met the challenges through quick and effective actions, systems knowledge, backing each other up, and teamwork. SP-205 passed judgement on our controlled, chaotic dance contest, and they liked what they had seen. I allowed myself a secret, self-satisfied smile…

Last missile away. We had won.

"Set condition 4SQ, secure from Battlestations Missile."

Senior Chief Barnes is a member of the Gold crew of USS Michigan (SSBN-727).

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