Navy Spinning San Francisco Story
Bob Hamilton of The New London Day, who I really respect, has a long article out on what he's learned from various sources about what the final report on the San Francisco grounding will say. (Registration required starting tomorrow.) Discussion on this article at Ron Martini's BBS can be found here. Excerpt:
"The report, which could be released as early as this month, will cite problems with the USS San Francisco's chart preparation methods and, more seriously, the crew's failures to recognize specific warnings that the submarine was headed into trouble.
"Soundings showed the bottom was more than 1,200 feet shallower than on the charts that were in use, a difference of more than 20 percent, the sources said. In addition, the ship's fathometer showed the water was shoaling, or getting more shallow with each reading, over an extended period of time, the sources said.
"Either one of the warnings should have prompted the crew to slow the submarine down and proceed far more cautiously, the sources said. Instead, the ship plowed into an underwater mountain that was nearly a sheer cliff at a speed of about 30 mph.
"In addition, the navigation team was not laying out the ship's projected track far enough ahead of the ship's actual position to determine whether it was sailing into safe water, a particularly dangerous practice in the island-studded area of the Pacific where the San Francisco was operating, the sources said."
This spin that the Navy's putting out is fairly interesting to me. Earlier, I've intimated that I really don't know any more about this incident than anyone else. In truth, I've been able to glean, based on unclassified information, some of the specifics of the grounding that leads me to believe that the people providing the information to Mr. Hamilton are trying to "spin" it to make it seem as bad for the crew as possible. True, there were some soundings that were shallower than expected, but the sounding immediately before the grounding did check with charted. Boats have bad soundings all the time; did investigators go back in other subs logs to see if all of them turned around, or requested a change to their op order, every time they had a sounding that didn't check with charted? Of course with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, investigators will find problems with what was done, but they could do that with any boat on any underway. We've heard how the collision will generate a lot of new rules and regulations for boats to follow in navigation. My point, which I will continue to make, is that I believe that the crew did the same things that most boats in the fleet would have done before January. If the mistakes were so "obvious", why didn't the Sub Force do a better examining for boats making similar mistakes earlier? The answer is that they didn't; right or wrong, this same thing could have happened to any other attack boat given the same operational order.
One line in particular from Hamilton's story in particular grabbed me: "In addition, the ship's fathometer showed the water was shoaling, or getting more shallow with each reading, over an extended period of time, the sources said. Either one of the warnings should have prompted the crew to slow the submarine down and proceed far more cautiously, the sources said." Yes, that is true; the problem, or actually non-problem, is that the chart said the water was shoaling, and the crew expected this; accounts we've read from watchstanders indicate that the boat had just changed the limits for the soundings based on moving into deeper water from the previously expected "shallower", shoaling water.
I care a lot about the Submarine Force, and I admit that I'm worried about the direction the Force has been taking for the last few years. While submarines are doing vital work in the prosectution of the Global War on Terror, it seemed that more and more time was being spent preparing for more and more inspections; exams that I honestly didn't see related very much to the real world. Classification issues prevent me from getting too far into the things the boats did, but if a large portion of your time is spent preparing to run drills for things that might only happen every 10,000 boat-years, this takes away from the time you can spend preparing for what is really going on.
Update 0844 10 Apr: Another copy of the article that will last a little longer can be found here.
Update 0955 12 Apr: An even longer lasting copy is over at Submarine Brotherhood.