A Civilian Piloting a Submarine

A plot device in a TV show I watch involves someone (who presumably has no experience piloting a sub) planning to use a stolen submarine to escape his confines.

Is this even remotely possible? Not so much stealing the submarine, but “driving” it to a certain destination safely when you’ve had zero sub training?

What kind of submarine are we talking about? A U.S. Navy nuclear sub is one thing, and a small one-man submersible is another. I would assume the latter has relatively basic controls that could be quickly figured out. The former…not so much.

Sawyer can pilot that sub. He got training back in the 70’s under Horace Goodspeed.

From my limited experience with submarines, I don’t believe it’s possible for a single person to “drive” a military boat. There are multiple control stations that have to be operated in parallel. I’m sure someone who has actually served will be along shortly with details.

Are we talking about a small submersible or a large military submarine?

Small submersibles are usually battery-powered and don’t really have the ability to “go” anywhere other than down and back up. They are carried to their dive site by a support ship.

Large military submarines are ocean-going, of course, and if they are nuclear-powered, they have near-unlimited endurance. U.S. nuclear-powered submarines have a crew of about 140 sailors. You could put to sea with far fewer than that, though, but it it would compromise safety, the ability to engage in battle, and damage-control capability. When I was serving on a submarine, we used to speculate on how few people, properly trained, could actually get a submarine underway. Off the top of my head, you’d need at least three just to keep a submarine going–one to operate the throttle and answer bells in Maneuvering (the engineroom control room), one up forward to operate the rudder and stern planes, and since this guy can’t tell where he’s going, you need a third person to look out the periscope and direct the course. This doesn’t leave anybody to navigate or track other contacts via sonar or the fire control system, though, much less keep track of more mundane “housekeeping” items like maintaining a breathable atmosphere. :wink:

Your three intrepid sailors might be able to start up the reactor and the engineroom by themselves if they knew what they’re doing, but this is a bit more involved than pressing the (non-existent) “start” button. :smiley:

Untrained? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Not even with all 30+ volumes of the reactor plant manuals handy.

No cites but I’m sure that in the past I’ve seen holiday programmes that have featured civilian submarines taking tourists below the waves as a next generation glass bottomed boat.

This is a bit of a hijack, but why does someone have to “answer bells” in the engine room? Why can’t someone forward set the submarine cruise control for 10 knots say?

Yup, I’ve taken my kids on this twice. Takes about twenty passengers at a time, with each pair of passengers getting their own panoramic window. They have scuba divers swimming past the window, waving in and feeding the fish. Great fun! Highly recommended if you’re ever in the Canaries.

Oh, and it was operated by a single pilot, sitting at a glass bubble at the front of the shared cabin.

You don’t want to know: Ehime Maru and USS Greeneville collision - Wikipedia

Because there is no cruise control, or even a remote control. The throttles are completely manually controlled back aft in Maneuvering.

You could set the throttles for a speed corresponding to 10 knots, and then walk away, but you would then have no ability to change your speed unless someone ran back aft to adjust the throttle.

Your guy in the engineering spaces has enough to keep himself busy, anyway. He’d be doing the jobs of the 9 or so watchstanders normally standing watch in the engine room. Also, it’d be nice to know if any alarms sounded in Maneuvering.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear in my question. I understand that’s the way it’s designed. What I don’t understand is why it’s designed that way? Is there still a benefit to manually controlled throttles or is it a carryover?

Actually, many of the newer gas-turbine powered surface ships do have direct control of the throttles up on the bridge.

A nuclear-powered vessel uses a nuclear reactor to produce steam, which drives turbines. A steam-driven engine room is today a rather antiquated technology, and it takes a lot more people to operate and maintain. For these reasons, it really is only being used now for nuclear-powered vessels.

The main engine steam throttles could be automated and even set up for remote control, but it is thought that direct, local control is a better idea, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that there is one less thing to break, which is important for a warship.

The second reason is that the throttleman actually operates the throttles under the supervision of a watch officer who can see the impact of the throttle operation on the reactor and the rest of the engine room. The design is pretty idiot-proof, but whereas the worst thing that can happen to a diesel engine or a gas turbine is that is could catch fire, the worst thing that can happen to a nuclear reactor is that you could have a core meltdown–which would be an environmental disaster. (Note that this is very unlikely, and has never happened to a U.S. submarine.) So direct, local control under direct, close supervision is thought to be preferable.

The general design and operation philosophy since the inception of the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power program has been to make the operation of naval reactors to be as simple as possible, and to have as little automation as possible. When you have operators manually controlling the throttles, adjusting the control rods, and adjusting the electric plant, you have trained personnel actually present who can react to any potential problems. An automated plant can only react to problems foreseen by the designers.

robby, thanks for answering that. I’ve always wondered why they did it that way.

What kind of redundancy do they have? If something happened to the intercom or communications how would the engine room know to go to full or reverse? I’d hate to think of someone hooking up tin cans and dental floss as a backup phone system.

Robby, very interesting, thank you.

The normal method of ordering bells is as follows: The Officer of the Deck (OOD) would order the helmsman to signal the appropriate bell. For example, the OOD would state, “Helm, all ahead two-thirds!” The helmsman would give the proper repeat-back by responding, “All ahead two-thirds, aye, Sir!” He would then turn the dial on the engine-order telegraph (EOT) to the “two-thirds” position which actuates a pointer on a similar device back in the engineroom at the throttle control panel. The throttleman turn his pointer to the two-thirds position to acknowledge the order, and adjusts the throttles to answer the corresponding bell. The helmsman would then report to the OOD, “Sir, maneuvering answers ahead two-thirds.”

If the EOT went down, you would switch to the sound-powered telephones. These are wired devices that, as the name implies, do not need an external source of power. The sound of one’s voice drives a magnet to produce the corresponding sound in the earpiece of anyone else on the circuit. Normally the Chief of the Watch (the watchstander who operates the ballast system up in the control room) is always on the system, as is the Electrical Operator back in Maneuvering. If necessary, the throttleman could man a set of headphones as well. This system isn’t a whole lot more sophisticated than a pair of tin cans and string, but it works surprisingly well (the voice clarity is quite good) and is very robust. The U.S. Navy has used it on ships for decades, going back to before WWII.

For what it’s worth, LostPedia says that the most recent submarine seen on the show “resembles a Japanese Yūshio-class submarine”, a diesel-electric variety. Normal crew compliment is supposed to be around 80 people. It might be a little easier to pilot with a skeleton crew than a nuclear boat, but not much.

Of course, there’s always the tried-and-true method of pointing a gun at the captain — that’s what Sawyer ended up doing the last time he was on a sub.

When I went on a tour of the USS Intrepid they also had those sound tubes (litterally a metal tube you yell into) as a last resort form of communication. Do modern ships still have those things?

Well…do you know how to drive a sub?:smiley:

Totally envy you, mean to do it myself oneday.

No, but I don’t know how to fly a plane either. But if the choice were life or death, I’d try to figure something out.

Great video! How did they get such clarity underwater like that?