"The Virginian-Pilot" | 20.08.2003 09:43 | Technology
Machinist Mate Chief Don G. Rudelt, co-pilots on the simulator of the Virginia, a new class of submarine, at the U.S. Naval Submarine School in Groton, Conn. Today the Navy will christen the sub. Photo by Mort Fryman / The Virginian-Pilot.
By MATTHEW DOLAN, The Virginian-Pilot
August 16, 2003
GROTON, CONN. -- The officer of the deck called out: ``Depth 700 feet!''
Chief Petty Officer Mitch Taylor had heard similar orders hundreds of times before -- first as a young helmsman and planesman, then as diving officer of the watch, and finally as chief of the watch. In those jobs, he could turn a wheel, toggle a switch or twist a knob to coax a 7,000-ton undersea vessel into action.
Sitting in a simulator for the nation's newest class of nuclear attack submarines this week, the wheel, switches and knobs were all gone. So Taylor needed to practice what to do.
He touched a new computer screen and a calculator-like image appeared. He pushed his finger on the number seven, followed by two quick touches on the number zero. Then he punched ``Enter.''
``700, ay!'' Taylor said, as the computer began to lower the simulated Virginia-class sub to the proper depth.
Christening details: 11 a.m. today at Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn.
Ship sponsor: Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, and the wife of former U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).
Principal speaker: U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
Commanding officer: Capt. David J. Kern, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Today the Navy will christen the Virginia, the first in a new generation of submarines designed to replace the aging Los Angeles class. On the outside, the Virginia looks much the same as its predecessors. And its mission -- to fire Tomahawk missiles, collect intelligence and transport special forces such as SEALs -- is largely the same as today's attack subs.
But the Navy has radically transformed how its sailors will actually drive its newest subs.
A joystick replaces the heavy steering wheel. A pilot and co-pilot take the place of four sailors who used to control the sub's movements. And orders for depth, speed and pitch are entered into eight computerized touch-screens that function like an airplane's autopilot.
With the technological advancements have come cultural changes. On most subs, the crew's youngest sailors stand watch, spending exhausting shifts behind the yoke-like wheel of the boat.
``Now you're going to have to be a senior first class or chief to drive these,'' said Senior Chief Petty Officer Ronald W. Buckley, one of the instructors at the U.S. Naval Submarine School in Groton.
Capt. David J. Kern, the Virginia's commanding officer, added that the elimination of driving shifts for junior sailors should give them more time to work on their at-sea qualifications.
To ensure that the crew of the Virginia understands how to navigate the sub using the new system, the ``drive and dive'' simulator needed to be extremely realistic, Navy and shipyard officials said.
So the training chamber pitches and rolls to replicate the conditions at sea. When the sub dives down at a sharp angle, the entire room tilts forward. When it rises, the floor leans back. The chamber appears to bob up and down when the simulated sub has crashed through the surface to rocky seas.
Instructors can even add the ``white noise'' of whinning computers and wheezing vents to mimic life aboard a sub underway.
Each of at least eight sailors who will serve as pilots and co-pilots among the Virginia's crew will need 200 hours in the sub school simulator before the boat is commissioned and goes to sea next year.
``A lot of the functions are automatic,'' Taylor said. ``But you still have to watch the sensors constantly.''
On Los Angeles class, the helmsman directs the sub left and right. The planesman controls how the sub travels up and down. The diving officer of the watch maintains ordered depth and the chief of the watch watches the levels of water used throughout the sub to keep it balanced.
The computer systems controlled by the pilot and co-pilot assume all of those duties on the Virginia class. Still, there is a mechanism for manual override. That's when a nimble joystick on the right side of both the pilot and co-pilot can be used to steer the sub in any direction.
``By the way, it's lots of fun,'' Kern said. ``We took a lot of the fatigue out of the job. Now you won't have to fight the stick.''