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Editor’s Note: On Januay 8, 2005 USS SAN FRANCISCO (SSN 711) grounded at a position 360 nautical miles South-east of Guam, during a submerged transit from Guam to Australia. The ship sustained extensive damage and injuries to over 85% of the crew. One crew member later died of his injuries. The official Navy investigation revealed significant errors in navigational procedures and voyage planning that contributed directly lo the tragedy.

Just a thought -since history seems to repeat itself, do we need a long range tickler system to review lessons learned 40 years earlier . . . to ensure the training course lesson plan was not deleted? As I soak up the sun on a modem cruise ship in the Caribbean (currently the extent of my blue water travels), what brings me to this thought? Another e-mail re: the tragedy of USS SAN FRANCISCO (SSN71 I).

How could this have happened with the superb personnel who man the ships today? I meet them at Submarine League functions and am in awe. So how could this have happened … again? Back in the early 60’s, one of our boomers hit a seamount so hard that the pressure hull was cracked and the torpedo room had to be pressurized to get the ship back safely. Sound familiar?

In 1968 as an off-crew SSBN Navigator, I had the opportunity to fill an opening in Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) School and read about 40 classified reports of recent collisions, bottomings and groundings. The freedom to operate at high speed for long periods without a fix was a new capability to diesel boaters accustomed to frequent fixes. I kept reading common threads in each investigation. One of those threads was chart inaccuracy.

Suddenly, I received orders to be a Submarine School instructor. With a smile, the Director of the Executive Division (then CDR Dick Peterson) handed me six pages of yellow legal size paper with a few bullets on each page in very large cryptic hand written notes. “This is the new two week Submerged Conning and Navigation Course which starts in about three weeks and you’re it.” Dick was being relieved by a CDR Bruce DeMars and this was my opportunity to excel?!!

Why the new course? In addition to the navigation problems above, the rapid expansion of the Submarine Force in the early 60’s ( commissioning a new nuclear submarine every month) introduced drastic manning measures, e.g., drafting non-submariners from Post Graduate School or surface billets to take an accelerated 3-4 year program to nuclear submarine command. At about the same time, the requirement to be a qualified OOD on a surface ship before entering sub school was dropped. Besides learning a new submarine, we now had to train the baby ducks (direct inputs from Officer Candidate School who had never been to sea)! And deck seamanship/navigation ranked way behind their nuclear propulsion plant qualifications.

Before becoming commissioning Navigator of the last of the “41 for Freedom” SSBNs, I had learned navigation and seamanship at the Naval Academy, qualified as an OOD on a DD, done the “Days Work in Navigation” while qualifying in submarines on a diesel boat, had 3 full tours at sea (DD, SS, SSBN) and completed all of the Navy navigation correspondence courses before going through Dam Neck to learn inertial nav. Despite all this, I was shocked at how much I learned about piloting during our 2-month shakedown and was still learning from those investigation reports in PCO School.

On a personal note, I threw myself with a vengeance into building the curricula and lesson plans for this new course. First lesson was an introduction into all the tools (charts, pubs, etc., including the 3-arm protractor in case you lost the gyro while piloting). Speaking of piloting, I developed a recorded exercise as if you were plotting your progress up the Cooper River into Charleston. As the tape played and bearings were called out, the students found some difficulty with their skills of laying down the 3 minute fixes, making recommendations and answering the questions from the skipper on the bridge. (I didn’t tell them until the final exam that the 3-minute fixes actually came at them every 2 minutes.)

Every lesson learned was in that course. But now one in particular stands out… the SSBN collision with a seamount due to chart inaccuracies. In preparing that lesson plan, every on board chart of that area was consulted. The LAT/LON of that seamount differed by over 5 miles depending on which chart you used. I plotted the worst-case charts on one view graph to show this graphically to the students. It was amazing to see the lights go on when they saw and understood this. They were then taught to be a healthy skeptic even when things looked reasonable … prove that you are not somewhere else … what could go wrong?

To drive it home, I lectured about a personal experience returning from a North Atlantic patrol on a track given us by CSL and J5 (our operational command). Their track took us directly between two seamounts three miles apart with peaks above 180 feet (while we were transiting full speed at 200 feet). Despite being confident of our dead reckoning position, I just didn’t feel comfortable going between 2 mountains. But, should we slow, come up and get a fix? If yes, at what point? Or should we go around the seamounts and how far? After a great deal of thought, I put all of the worst-case factors together and made my recommendation to the CO.

Ultimately I wrote a paper based on this … “Fix Expansion and the Third Dimension”. It was published in the Submarine Quarterly Information Bulletin and included in the course. Many years later, I was surprised when I met a former SUBPAC PCO Instructor (Dave Duffie’), who said he was honored to meet the author of that paper. He still calls me Magellan. But more astounding was a note a few years ago from a friend and former Trident CO (Bob Speer) mentioning that SUB PAC COs were complaining that my paper was too restrictive. I would hope so. It was written as a thought provoker 30 years earlier. Somehow it had become a SUBPAC edict!

Well, the fallout of all this is that I became curious. What is being taught today? Does the Submerged Conning and Navigation course still exist? Have any of those lesson plans survived? Hopefully the answers are all yes or things are much better. If not, should we set it up again with a long-range tickler system for 35 years from now to go back and see what was taught back then and possibly lost due to the passage of time? Could we prevent another seamount collision 35 years from now? Just a thought!

Well, last week, at the JHU/APL Submarine Technology Symposium, the Head of the Submarine Leaning Center (Captain Arnie Lotring … an SSN Navigator and PCO Instructor) gave a superb presentation about where they are heading. I asked about what is being taught today. The answer he provided is as follows:

After nuclear training (I year) officers receive 10 weeks of the Submarine Officer Basic Course (SOBC). During this course they receive familiarization training on (TMA) target motion analysis, periscopes, and navigation equipment.

During their first year aboard. officers are required to complete three one week courses, called Junior Officer courses (JO-I, 2, and 3), taught in each of our submarine homeports and focusing on ship handling, contact coordinating and navigation (surface and sub-merged). The courses are each preceded with pre-requisite training employing the Submarine Onboard Training Program which uses computer based training products (course ware and simulations) to allow onboard training before arriving at the school. Once in the school they use very sophisticated trainers including the virtual reality ship handling trainer called VESUB and the Submarine Piloting and Ship handling Trainer (SP AN 2000). This training is supplemented in the classroom with group projects which include lessons learned and practical exercises.

During department head school, called the Submarine Officer Advanced Course (SOAC) which is 22 weeks long, each prospective department head participates and then is evaluated against fleet standards in ship handling and navigation (surfaced and submerged). During the final two weeks of the course, they are divided into their specialty (engineers, weapons officers and navigation officers) for further focused training.

The XOs and COs, who now train together in a course called Senior Command Course (SCC), get dedicated classroom time in the newest digital navigation systems and practical experience on ship handling and navigation trainers. Again, a prospective XO will repeat the nine-week course as a PCO. Underway, each candidate will get hands on ship handling and navigation practice.

Captain Lotring went on to say … “We are rapidly transitioning to electronic charts, where preparing and updating will transition to flat panel displays. Chart updates will be the skill of merging various bathometric data bases. Periscope rounds will be automatically projected onto the screen as the scope pickle is pressed … no more manual rounds. Bill, I think we have a good program. Understanding there are only so many hours in the day, we continually evaluate, with the TYCOM Deputies for Training, whether we have the right mix of hours and topics. As you can imagine, everyone has an opinion. And as always, we are relying on a robust on board training program where our Chiefs, XOs and COs are passing on their experience and knowledge to our new officers … just as I’m sure you did many years. ago.” Amen to the many years ago and thanks Captain Lotring for the update!

A few final thoughts … despite all the modem trainers and updated training, we are still having these terrible accidents as we had in the early 60s … caused by faulty navigation. I suspect the best path to nuclear submarine command is still through engineering assignments and our COs are much better trained in engineering than navigation. The top performing officers are most likely assigned as Engineer Officers. Perhaps this should be evaluated and if so, compensated for by even more emphasis on safe navigation training and practices.

In nuclear power training, we are taught to trust our instruments and make professional judgments based on what they tell us. But navigation, despite all our modem devices, is still an art, and the prudent and experienced navigator will always have a healthy skepticism towards his equipment and especially his charts.

The vast majority of our charts are based upon surveys taken long before it was possible to accurately fix the position of the survey vessel. And yet, far too many mariners believe that their charts are accurate. As such, the Navigator must learn to develop an approach to his task with a mindset that is almost the direct opposite to that of the nuclear plant operator.

So, it appears the tickler system is not the answer today, but what is needed is to truly evaluate the performance level of our Navigators and the manner in which they are selected, trained and indoctrinated. The fact that we continue to have serious navigational accidents, while essentially having no serious nuclear plant accidents, clearly suggests that our nuclear plant operators are being properly trained, but not our Navigators. Given the wake up call of the SAN FRANCISCO tragedy along with the conscientious and experienced folks running the Submarine Force today, I suspect these reviews and corrective actions are well underway … but perhaps we should tickle another review for 35 years from now or sooner.

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