In a quiet marina, nestled among bobbing pleasure boats, bayside condos and sailmakers’ shops, a futuristic dream is taking shape.
It began as an inventor’s vision and was nurtured by volunteers when money ran low. Now it gleams inside a dockside garage, its torpedo-shaped body nearly ready to dart through the seas.
Called Deep Flight I, it looks more like a stubby-winged fighter jet than a submarine--and in some ways it acts more like one too.
“It’s a mirror image. Airplanes need lift to pull themselves up in the air. We need lift to hold us down under water,” said Brett Holson, the project’s operations manager.
Unlike conventional submarines, which go up and down like blimps with ballast controlling their rise and fall, Deep Flight I can do banks, power dives and barrel rolls, all at a relatively fast six knots.
Strapped face down into the 12-foot craft and looking out its clear acrylic nose cone, the pilot navigates by angling its upside-down aft wings and changing the speed and direction of twin electric thrusters.
If Deep Flight I works as envisioned, it will make an ideal underwater filming platform, able to follow a diving whale into the depths, for example.
But that’s just part of what designer Graham Hawkes envisioned when he began pitching the Deep Flight idea five years ago.
Hawkes has his sights set much lower--on Deep Flight II and the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the deepest spot on Earth.
“It’s the Holy Grail,” said Hawkes. “For (those of) us involved in this business, it’s like putting a man on the moon.”
Explorers have neared the bottom only once before, in 1960, when Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and Navy Lt. Don Walsh dived in the bathyscaph Trieste.
The steel-hulled Trieste touched down on what the log described as a “snuff-colored ooze” at 35,800 feet and stayed for 20 minutes. Deeper depths have been reported, but not officially confirmed.
Since then, scientists have been restricted to depths shallower than 20,000 feet, where the underwater pressures are not nearly as intense and costs remain reasonable.
Only a few craft are capable of going even that deep. Fewer can carry a pilot. Still, 98% of the Earth’s oceans are within range of those submersibles.
So why go deeper?
Well, there probably are a lot of exotic life forms floating around in that dark, out-of-reach area roughly the size of Western Europe. Then there are the possible advances in technology. And, of course, Deep Flight could cut costs dramatically for researchers.
And, finally, “it’s one of the last unexplored places. Nobody’s been there before. It needs to be done for the betterment of ocean exploration,” Holson said.
The British-born Hawkes, an engineer at Deep Ocean Technology in San Leandro, had designed and built more than 50 conventional subs when he came up with the idea of underwater flight in 1988.
Because he knew nobody would fund such a radical idea, the original investment came out of his own pocket. He, Holson and a bunch of volunteers just started building Deep Flight I in their spare time, every Tuesday and Thursday night in the Point Richmond garage.
“We all had day jobs. We’d meet in the evenings, feed them pizza and they’d work on the sub,” Holson said.
That worked fine until 1992, when his money ran out.
“Things kind of slowed down. Couldn’t afford to buy the pizza or pay for parts,” he said.
Then, last year, the Scientific Search Project, a New York-based company hoping to use Deep Flight to search for shipwrecks, decided to fund the project in exchange for title to one of the two Deep Flight I vehicles. The National Geographic Society, IMAX films and TV New Zealand also signed on.
The result: Four people are working on the project full time and Deep Flight I is scheduled to swoop through the Atlantic Ocean off Florida this November to film a Discovery Channel special.
But the Mariana Trench is still three years off, at least.
Deep Flight I and its identically named twin sister are prototypes. The pressure hull--an epoxy-glass fiber composite shell and acrylic nose cone--can only protect pilots down to about 3,300 feet. Much beyond that and the vessel could implode.
Building the two prototypes will end up costing $1.5 million, including the value of the free labor. Hawkes estimates that each Deep Flight II will cost $2 million to $3 million.
“That project we can’t afford to do in our garage after work,” Holson said. “It needs major support.”
Developing a pressure hull of ceramic or carbon-fiber composite capable of withstanding the pressures would be one major change. Speed and trip length could be increased by changing to more advanced batteries.
Deep Flight I missions are expected to last up to four hours, although oxygen and other life-support systems are designed to keep the pilot safe for 24 hours. Since the craft is lighter than water--it’s the “flying” that keeps it down--it will head to the surface if engines fail.
One central idea behind Deep Flight is to open up deep-sea exploration to more scientists, who now wait years to board the few available subs.
Since it is so small, Deep Flight II would not require a ship outfitted with a special crane and other equipment that can drive up operating costs to $20,000 a day.
“It’s the Model T of submarines. Every school could afford one because you don’t need a dedicated mothership,” said Bob Whiteaker, another Deep Flight engineer.