A Bubblehead's Life - Volume One
Yep, I'm a bubblehead. In fact, I'm proud to be called a bubblehead, proud to count myself among the thousands who have willing operated a vessel designed to sink.
So what is a bubblehead? A bubblehead is a current or former Navy sailor who wears the dolphins, the pin that signifies qualification in the Navy Submarine Service.
I still have my first set of dolphins, pinned on my chest by Commander James Shew in 1978. Little I have done in life, before or since, stand out as significant as that single accomplishment.
My path to this unique service was tortured and too involved for The Tentacle. I did think it might be interesting to read about life at several hundred feet underwater.
My initial experience in the submarine service was not terribly exciting. I reported to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, CT, with orders to the Off Crew office of the USS Stonewall Jackson, a ballistic missile submarine.
My boat (NOT SHIP!!) was located in Holy Loch, Scotland. Since our ballistic missile boats can stay underwater longer than the crew can stand, we use two crews to expand the operating tempo.
The Blue and Gold crews alternate their time aboard, with the crew turnover occurring in the middle of Holy Loch, tied to a massive support ship called a submarine tender.
So my introduction to the Silent Service was in a sterile office environment. The officer over my division handed me a stack of "piping tabs" and operating procedures and told me to start studying.
A piping tab is a small, multi-page technical manual detailing the pipe and valve locations for hydraulic, water, and high-pressure air systems. These things might as well have been written in Spanish or Chinese. To say that I was mechanically impaired would be like saying that Michael Jackson has some minor self-image issues.
Regardless of the job you are assigned or the location of the workspace you will ultimately occupy, everyone on the boat is expected to know how to operate every single system aboard.
The logic is unassailable. Imagine you're walking through a compartment and you are confronted with a hydraulic leak. Your choices would be to call someone else to come help you or know where the valve might be to secure the system. That same hydraulic leak might be in a line supplying oil to the control surfaces, and failure to act quickly could doom the boat.
My off crew time was divided between private study, classrooms, and the training simulators. Remember, I had yet to even see the boat that I would live on for the next three years.
Driving a submarine is a lot like flying an airplane, and the crew preparation is very similar. These multi-billion dollar warships deserve top notch, well-trained crews. The Navy ensures that through the most sophisticated hand-on simulation, submariners are some of the Navy's best-prepared operators in the world.
I spent several weeks sitting in the Control Room simulator. In a large, non-descript building, the Control Room simulator rests on a gimbaled platform, able to simulate the full range of motion of a real submarine.
You climb a metal staircase to a catwalk approximately twenty feet above the floor. When you open the door, you find yourself in an EXACT replica of the Control Room, right down to the aluminum coffee cup holders. All of the equipment, computers, and stations are faithfully replicated.
At the other end of the catwalk is the room through which the trainer is controlled and monitored. The trainer staff can see into the Control Room, so the little drama that plays out is apparent, both the good and the bad.
It helps to be a little sadistic when you serve as a training specialist. With the flip of a switch, he can cause a flood, a reactor scram, a loss of hydraulics, and a fire. Believe it or not, one of my training scenarios involved several of these events at one time.
Our challenge was to take the actions necessary to get the simulator to the surface. Better to experiment with different combinations and procedures sitting in a building in Connecticut than in the open Atlantic Ocean. Several times we failed in our attempts to save our little trainer, and the alarm horn that sounded when the horizontal limits are reached still rings in my head.
I knew we would walk away or try again, but I also knew that if we failed aboard the real boat, the horn would be replaced with a crushing wall of seawater collapsing the hull. In light of that, it's easy to take the training very seriously.
The other training experience that remains a part of my conscience is the Escape Trainer. The skyline on the Sub Base was dominated by a tall structure with a round enclosure on top, something like a modern water tower. This one had sprung a few exterior leaks, though!
After a harrowing briefing from some Navy divers, we were instructed to don our Steinke Hoods (named after the inventor). The air the wearer is expelling from their lungs inflates the hood, and the positive buoyancy propels the wearer towards the surface. The divers had told us to be sure to keep expelling air, or the air would expand in our lungs and kill us. I remember thinking; "Did he just say it would kill us?" Adds an exciting dimension to your training, huh?
Needless to say, my ascent from the base to the top of the tower was uneventful, and must have conformed to the lecture. That concept applies to all of the technical training we received.
Water and fire represent the most serious threats to life aboard a vessel that operates well below the ocean's surface. The Navy takes great care to ensure submariners can deal with both.
We worked extensively in a fire trainer that required full firefighting equipment to deal with all classes of combustion, in both light and dark situations. We also spent many hours in the flood trainer. Walking in the first time, I remember thinking how much it looked like a real compartment, with pipes, valves, and walkways that looked just the real thing.
Wooden plugs, rubber sheeting, sheet metal, and metal straps or banding are the tools of the flood control trade. The challenge isn't using these tools; the challenge is using these tools as ice cold water starts to fill the room.
The sound of water under high pressure is something I'll never forget. The other thing I won't forget is that a jet of high-pressure water can cut through human skin like a scalpel. That same jet of water makes detecting the source of the flood very difficult. The jet deflects off of other piping, walls, and valves. One small leak source might have you thinking that water is coming from several locations at once.
All of this while the water creeps up from your ankles, to your knees, to your torso. Your hands go numb, making it tough to put pressure on the strapping tool or to hold the plug in place.
Needless to say, the Navy understands the critical importance of high-quality, realistic training.
Next up, my first glimpse of the USS Stonewall Jackson, and life aboard a nuclear ballistic missile submarine.