Friday, August 18, 2000

Submarine life full of routine - mostly

Veterans say it's not unlike flying

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The sense of night and day is suspended, and time is measured in 18-hour days, six hours on and 12 off. Working, studying, eating and sleeping.

Officials say the sub was probably damaged by a collision and has a huge hole in its right side.
        There is the hum of equipment, and perhaps the odor of hydraulic oil and grease. There is little genuine sensation of movement save when the submarine accelerates or makes a turn. Crew often do not need to focus their eyes more than six feet in front of them. Sixty to 70 days submerged at a time is not unusual.

"You adjust'
               “If it bothers you to be locked in a closet for a while, then you know you don't want to be on a submarine,” said Lee Ashton, who served aboard subs in the mid-1970s and is vice president of human resources for Fifth Third Bank.

        “Once you get on board you adjust. You know the areas where you can stand up and where you can't. Your body kind of adjusts to that.”

        A handful of former submariners from the Navy contacted by the Enquirer have been paying rapt attention to the attempts to reach and rescue any survivors aboard a Russian nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

        The nuclear sub, the Kursk, has been missing since Saturday, and apparently was damaged after an explosion in a torpedo compartment. News reports say there has been no sign of life from the submarine, which carried a crew of 118.

        But U.S. naval submariners say that while an accident is an abiding fear, it is mitigated by intensive training, and probably no worse than what airplane pilots might experience at 30,000 feet.

        Peacetime U.S. sub accidents, for instance, number only a couple of dozen dating back to 1915, and the last time a crew was lost was aboard the USS Scorpion, which foundered in May 1968.

        “I think when you're first assigned to a submarine, the first few times you go underwater you think more about that (accidents),” Mr. Ashton said. “But it's just like flying an airplane. The first few times you fly an airplane, you're constantly worrying about things like, "What's that bump? Are we OK?'”

Training hones skills
               Bill Gott, a retired naval submariner who lives in Georgetown, Ky., served on both the World War II-era diesel-powered submarine and a nuclear sub.

        “It can be pretty routine for the most part, until something like this can occur,” Mr. Gott said. “Then hopefully your training would come into play and you can overpower the situation.

        “... You don't want to make a mistake. Maintenance is strictly controlled. Over and over repetitive training is what hones those skills.”

        The din of background noise in a submarine are sounds that the crew quickly identifies with, Mr. Gott said.

        “It becomes part of you. If there's a change in that, you sense that, hey, something is happening. Is something going wrong?”

        Quarters are cramped; crew must turn sideways in a corridor to squeeze by a crewmate. They must duck while passing through a hatch. But there isn't an inch of wasted space.

        The training is incessant, crews are close to one another. The training involves everyone on board, Mr. Ashton said.

        “You must be able to identify every component, every system on the ship, no matter what your job is,” he said. “Even the ship's cook must be able to do this.”


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