In the Field: Flying beneath the sea

By LIDIA WASOWICZ, UPI Senior Science Writer  |  March 17, 2003 at 10:47 AM
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A century after the Wright brothers spread man's wings in the first ever controlled flight of a powered aircraft through the air, American engineer, explorer and entrepreneur Graham Hawkes is taking aviation to another level -- far beneath the ocean's surface.

His one-of-a-kind, two-person winged submersible, dubbed the Deep Flight Aviator, slices through water like a jet through the skies. The machine portends a new era in deep-sea exploration, he asserts.

An intrepid trailblazer who has spent most of his 54 years designing and building underwater vessels for everyone from the British government to researchers and filmmakers, Hawkes conceived his 22-foot-long, 4,100-pound sub-sea flying machine as the latest incarnation of his lifelong dream to go where no human has gone before: the alien world that lies beneath the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet's surface. To him, it is the sea, not space, that represents humanity's final frontier.

Strapped securely in tandem cockpits, their heads popping up in a pair of see-all acrylic bubbles, Hawkes and co-pilot Brian Power grab onto the dual-control joysticks, sending the small, sleek, swift craft soaring beneath the waves of San Francisco Bay.

Springing from the glossy, bright blue exploration vehicle following its brief but dazzling debut, the underwater aviators expressed a sense of excitement and expectation.

"For deep-ocean discovery, this is the only ride in town!" beamed Power, a real estate developer from the Sacramento, Calif., area, and an investor in the venture. "You fly above the Earth, so why not beneath it?"

The homemade vessel, also christened the Spirit of Patrick, in honor of a recently deceased leading supporter, was carefully crafted to explore the cutting-edge concept of underwater flight and to offer a long-range, economical means for scouting out the secrets of the deep.

"This is a pretty big deal," said Hawkes, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who has had a hand in constructing more than 60 manned submersibles over the past 33 years.

"It will lead to opening up more than half the planet," he told UPI's In the Field in a dockside interview.

"Man's future is in the oceans," said Hawkes, a San Anselmo, Calif., inventor who also counts more than 300 remotely operated vehicles built for research and industry worldwide to his creative credit. "I think to secure it, we need to learn how to fly underwater."

Many in the crowd of spellbound onlookers seemed to agree, convinced they were witnessing history. Some ranked the Aviator's maiden voyage on par with Orville and Wilbur Wright's first successful flight, nearly 100 years ago, on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"It will be looked back on one day as a quite historic moment and Graham Hawkes recognized even more fully as one of the world's foremost submarine/submersible designers and builders!" enthused retired Navy Capt. Alfred McLaren, 70, of New York City, an acclaimed Arctic explorer, scientist and deep-sea adventurer in his own right.

"It will, in all probability, herald a completely new series of submersibles worldwide patterned after Deep Flight Aviator," McLaren, a highly decorated veteran of more than 20 cold war submarine operations, told UPI.

If all goes according to plan, the mini-submersible will change the course of exploration by making plumbing the ocean's depths easier and cheaper, investors in the venture forecast.

"The Aviator's revolutionary design with its advanced maneuverability and speed, will open the doors to not only scientists and filmmakers, but to the general public who desire to know more about the planet Earth," said Carl Bass, executive vice president of the Design Solutions Division at Autodesk Inc., a digital data company in San Rafael, Calif., which has contributed software and financial support to the project.

The third in the Deep Flight series of winged submersibles, the battery-propelled Aviator was designed to be deployed easily and to cover vast areas quickly and cost-effectively, he told UPI.

It can glide to a depth of 1,500 feet at 8 knots, or 9.2 miles per hour, eight times faster than other submersibles. It also costs only one-fourth as much to operate as conventional subs, whose bills can run up to $40,000 or more a day because they require expensive mother ships to function.

"The Deep Flight Aviator can operate from shore or from a boat," Karen Hawkes, Graham's wife and business partner, told UPI. "Its restriction is simply battery capacity. When batteries need to be recharged, Deep Flight Aviator will need to return to shore/boat to change out battery packs, and then go back in for another dive."

What sets Hawkes's sub -- which took $1 million and four months to make -- apart from the rest is its mode of operation. Rather than using ballast to dive and rise like traditional submarines -- which Hawkes said are to undersea exploration as dirigibles are to flight -- the Aviator thrusts through the water, jet-plane-style.

"We don't sink, we fly," Hawkes stated. "It moves fast, and it moves beautifully."

John Kelly, a 38-year-old engineer who took the craft for a spin in Monterey Bay during its first open ocean test, compared the exercise to flying a glider.

"It's the same type of feeling," he recalled. "The maneuverability is just like an airplane."

In contrast to traditional submersibles, seen as slow, bulky, stiff underwater balloons, Aviator is a lightweight, high powered, composite airframe with wings, thrusters and flight controls similar in configuration to the U.S. Air Force's A10 "Tank Buster," of Gulf War fame. The craft commingles such high-tech materials as carbon fiber and Kevlar, a super-strong but light-weight synthetic fiber whose applications range from bulletproof vests to windsurfing sails.

"The Aviator is unlike anything in existence, and the underwater experience is unparalleled," Hawkes remarked. "In conventional subs, you perch on a seat; in the Aviator, you strap tightly into the same five-point harness restraints used by Indy car racers."

"Moreover, you will see more," he added. "Even the best of today's submersibles are equivalent to scouting the jungle for tigers with a marching band. Traditional submersibles are noisy and lit up like Christmas trees. Any organism that can flee, does."

In contrast, Hawkes's machine combines the freedom of scuba diving and the depth capability of a submersible with the low intrusiveness of a stealth submarine, he said. Its special features aim for minimal disturbance of the environment.

"The Aviator uses batteries that are shielded to minimize electromagnetic interference," noted Lesley Ewing, 50, a Berkeley, Calif., coastal engineer and the only woman in the first batch of "sub-sea aviators" who will train to operate the craft in what Hawkes bills as the world's first underwater flight school.

"It uses a self-contained oxygen system so there will not be the air bubbles of scuba," she told UPI. "And, Stanford Photonics has provided the Aviator with the equivalent of night-vision goggles for the pilots and the cameras so the Aviator will not need to use klieg lights to see where it is going."

She also is impressed with the craft's versatility.

"The Spirit of Patrick will be able to zoom through the water, do slalom sources, spin, bank and roll," Ewing said. "It will be able to keep up with a lot of the fish and marine mammals that we mainly only see from the surface -- sort of like an environmentally friendly high performance sports car."

Its makers think such features make the Aviator ideal not only for exploration but also for such potential applications as:

--pinpointing ingredients for biotechnology products that might help cure cancer, AIDS, heart disease and other ailments in the sea, which scientists have described as "the medicine chest of the next millennium;"

--discovering exotic species of plants and animals and novel mineral and food reserves in the oceans, which support a greater diversity of life than any other ecosystem on Earth;

--helping to better understand weather and climate patterns, and

--providing a means for ocean monitoring to prevent further pollution and other environmental harm.

Scientists hoping to make use of the innovative craft include William Gilly, a Stanford University researcher who studies the Humboldt squid, a deep-diving creature that reaches 6 feet in length and 80 pounds in girth.

The squid's proclivity for hanging out at depths of 1,500 feet makes it difficult to observe, noted Gilley, professor of biological sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif.

Submersibles that can plunge to those depths offer less than optimal study conditions, providing only a 6-inch porthole for getting a peek at one of the ocean's most enigmatic creatures, he pointed out. Also, remote-controlled subs with cameras cannot keep up with a school of squid, he added.

"We'd like to penetrate the secret world of the squid," said Gilly, who has been studying the creature's nervous system and behavior since 1978.

"Squid really are the common thread in the world's oceanic ecosystems -- acting as both predators and prey," he told UPI. "The Aviator will permit us to study Humboldt squid at depths where they spend 98 percent of their lives ... and in a first-rate way that will really penetrates the realm of the squid with minimal disturbance to their natural behaviors."

The craft could help solve other mysteries of the deep as well.

"The Deep Flight Aviator's maneuverability, speed and endurance should prove extremely useful in locating previously undiscovered ship wrecks," McLaren observed. "I would like to use it in the Arctic to search for the missing (1845) Franklin Expedition ships, Erebus and Terror, in the Canadian Arctic Islands."

Spurred by such ambitions, McLaren is heading to the Bahamas for a three-day, $15,000 course in navigating the Aviator.

Hawkes's company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, Calif., which developed the Deep Flight winged submersibles, will be issuing underwater pilots' licenses through its one-of-a-kind Sub-Sea Flight School. Hawkes began training the first batch of would-be underwater fliers at Tongue of the Ocean in New Providence, Bahamas, last month.

The list of candidates reads like a Who's Who of ocean adventurers and pioneers. In addition to McLaren and Ewing, it includes author, photojournalist, deep-sea and Arctic explorer Morton Beebe, 68, a third-generation San Franciscan noted for his treks to both Poles and other little-traveled corners of the world and the resulting photo essays, as well as for his work on such feature films as "The Graduate" and "Take The Money and Run."

"I feel exhilarated for the opportunity to be among the first 14 to pilot the craft," confided Beebe, a cousin of the late William Beebe, an internationally known author, naturalist and ocean explorer who captured world headlines in 1934 when he and engineer Otis Barton descended to 3,028 feet in a crude steel contraption called the bathysphere. Their record stood for 15 years.

"I will be the first photographer to shoot video and stills from inside the canopy," Beebe told UPI.

For her part, Ewing plans to map ancient beaches now submerged under 200 feet of water and, perhaps, search for sunken ships.

"I am so excited about the opportunity to pilot the Aviator that I can barely contain myself," Ewing said. "As I am going to work on the bus, I am pretending to navigate the course using foot pedals and a joystick. I have dreams that I'm flying through the water."

Her dreams are about to come true because of the ones Hawkes had as a child.

"Ever since he was a young boy, Graham has wanted to design and build airplanes," Karen Hawkes said.

Instead, he started out designing and building submersibles, including Mantis, which he piloted in the James Bond film, "For Your Eyes Only," and Deep Rover, in which he plunged 3,000 feet, a world record for a solo dive. A mockup he built of the submersible carried Sharon Stone, Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson from the ocean bottom to safety in the film, "Sphere."

Hawkes's own real-life adventures could rival the conjurings of science fiction writer Jules Verne. Once, donning a Jim suit -- at the time as bulky and cumbersome as the armor of a knight in the Middle Ages -- on a dive to 333 feet, he turned to watch the creatures around him, and inadvertently drilled himself into the seabed.

On another occasion, in the South China Sea, where old charts put the bottom at 599 feet, he found a cave "straight out of Disneyland" at 799 feet, the camera imploded at 999 feet and the wreck he was after turned up at 1,150 feet.

He also shattered a myth about alien abductions when, while looking for Spanish galleons off Miami, he discovered a number of long-lost military aircraft.

In 1986, having just wrapped up a project for a research team, Hawkes decided to design a cheaper, faster and more maneuverable submarine. In a new twist, his sub design -- sketched on a napkin -- sprouted wings.

"This was the most efficient design to cover the vast territory that lies beneath our oceans," Hawkes told UPI. "With conventional submersibles, it's like trying to explore the land territories with a Land Rover."

The Deep Flight Aviator is the next step towards Hawkes's long-time goal of building a manned submersible, Deep Flight II, capable of reaching the deepest place on Earth, the Mariana Trench, where the ocean floor plunges nearly 7 miles. There, at 35,810 feet, the pressure from the weight of the vast ocean above is immense -- more than 8 tons per square inch, or the equivalent of one person trying to hold up 50 jumbo jets.

Hawkes hopes to line up investors so he can attempt the feat, generally considered the ocean-going equivalent of landing on the moon.

"Just think, an Americas Cup campaign can cost $30 to $50 million, and in the end, you win a Cup trophy," Karen Hawkes said. "Deep Flight II needs about $10 million, and in the end, you gain access to three-fourths of the planet that is covered by water."

Only a handful of aging submersibles currently are available for research and exploration, and very few organizations -- most notable, the Japanese government -- are building manned submersibles and pushing ahead with deep-ocean technology programs, she said.

"This is an extremely significant invention -- it is absolutely and beautifully new and so simple," Gilly marveled. "It is Graham's vision and genius that has dumped it onto our laps. Now it is up to us to embrace the idea and get moving."


(Editors: UPI photos WAX200341601, WAX200341602, WAX200341603 and WAX200341604 available)

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