How to Launch a 13-Ton Submarine, Part 1

Years ago while on a dive trip, our dive boat took a detour through a nearby harbor to go check out the new mega-yacht that had just pulled into port. We heard that the amazing boat was a recent purchase by magician David Copperfield as a gift for his super-model wife, Claudia Schiffer. As our dive boat circled around the port side, we noticed a gull-wing door that was open, and in the exposed compartment there she was. Beautiful! Stunning! And in all her glory, there sat a submarine. I was amazed! Beyond the obvious questions like how did a magician make enough money to buy something like this, and how did pulling rabbits out of a hat attract a girl like Claudia Schiffer, I was astonished that personal submarines existed, and I began to fantasize about someday owning a submarine of my own to explore the deepest reaches of the world's oceans.

Despite numerous attempts at sawing my brother in half, it soon became clear I didn't have a future in magic, so I did the next best thing and became a marine biologist. And now, many years later, I had the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the elite submersible diving teams in the world at the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab at the University of Hawaii.

The team at HURL operates two manned submersibles and a recently acquired unmanned ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) for scientific research. They have sent submarines on scientific explorations all over the Pacific Ocean and have discovered important archaeological sites, undersea volcanoes and literally hundreds of new species of marine life.

It should come as no surprise that a submarine program is very expensive. Funding for science has never been tighter than it is right now, and the HURL program was facing major cuts -- if not complete extinction -- if they didn't achieve serious cost savings for their operations. The cost for operating the 200-foot supporting research ship required for the launch and recovery of their submarines was more than $40,000 per day.

Enter the LRT-30A. LRT stands for Launch, Recovery, Transport, and is essentially a barge that the submersible rides on. The barge and sub are towed to the desired dive site behind something as small and affordable as a commercial tug boat, and then the team of HURL divers proceeds to conduct an operation that is one part NASA space mission, and one part James Bond movie. After loading the scientists and sub pilot into the submarine on the barge, the dive team sinks the barge with the submarine still attached, achieves neutral buoyancy at a depth of 60 feet, and proceeds to launch the submarine from the barge underwater. This is no small feat. The Pisces V submarine weighs 13 tons and is powered only by a pair of side-mounted thrusters that don't make it the most agile vehicle in the world. After launching the sub, the divers and barge return to the surface where they wait the 8 hours or so while the sub is doing its work on the bottom -- at depths up to 6,500 feet. When word comes from the deep that the sub is done with its work and is returning to the surface, the LRT divers suit back up and reverse the process -- essentially landing the sub on the barge underwater like a fighter jet hitting the deck of an aircraft carrier. They secure the sub with heavy chains, the LRT pilot fills the LRT's air ballast tanks to increase its buoyancy, and they surface the barge with the submarine attached to it.

We took our cameras along with the HURL team to film this operation, and I have to say that in my 29 years of diving, watching this crew at work was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. These guys are pros at the highest level and make an incredibly complicated operation look remarkably easy. But more impressive than their skill at conducting a highly technical operation, the real merit of this system is that they have essentially saved the submersible diving program from going the way of the dodo bird. As complex as the LRT operation is, it saves the program money. Launching the sub from the LRT alleviates the need for the prohibitively expensive research ship they used to need. The alternative to this underwater launch and recovery is to use a shipboard crane to lift the sub in and out of the water, and only huge ships have this kind of lifting capability. The HURL team has replaced the 200-foot research vessel Ka'imikai-o-Kanaloa with a much smaller tug boat. Cutting daily operations cost from $40,000 down to $15,000, they have essentially made deep water scientific research affordable for many more researchers who are trying to answer important questions about deep ocean ecology, geology and history.

In part one of two episodes focused on the LRT operation (video above), we take a look at the LRT, the Pisces V submersible, and meet HURL operations manager Terry Kerby, a 30-year veteran submersible pilot, who is a legend of the deep. Terry isn't sure exactly how many hours he has spent piloting submarines, but it is safe to say it is more than any other scientific research sub pilot in the world. The crew producing our PBS Digital Studios series, UnderH2O, was thrilled and honored to spend time in the company of Terry and his team whose passion and commitment to continuing a deep-diving submersible operation in times of reduced funding for scientific research is something we should all salute.