The familiar hues of blue that John Jo Lewis had so often viewed from behind his mask grew darker as he drew closer to his destination. When he nudged the throttle of his vessel forward, his surroundings faded to black—the deepest, richest, starkest black he had ever seen, like the depths of the universe absent a single star.
Space, however, was not the Malibu real estate developer’s destination that day in November 2002. He was heading in the opposite direction, speeding toward a region equally unsullied and perhaps even more mysterious. Lewis, an experienced scuba diver, was aboard the Deep Flight Aviator in Stuart’s Cove, a dive site in the Bahamas, exploring hundreds of feet below the depths he regularly visited in his wet suit. “You’re absolutely going into a no-light abyss,” recalls Lewis, who has also dived in remote waters off of Fiji, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. “It’s a wild feeling, like blasting off into space. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Lewis was attending the inaugural Sub Sea Aviation School session. (The next session is scheduled for April 2004.) During the $15,000, three-day program, he learned how to pilot the Aviator, a 4,300-pound, two-person winged submersible constructed of machine-cast aluminum and able to bank and dive like an aircraft, travel at a top speed of 10 mph, and reach a depth of 1,500 feet. The Aviator was created by Graham Hawkes, the
founder of Deep Flight Submersibles, which has designed and built more than 50 manned submersibles and 300 remote-operated underwater vehicles. Hawkes views his latest invention as a groundbreaking advancement not only in scientific exploration but also in deep-sea tourism, a niche that has remained virtually vacant. “The bottom of the ocean is thought of as an impossible dream,” says Hawkes. “It’s only seven miles away. We live on an ocean planet that’s misnamed Earth.”
There are few places that tourists have yet to explore, on Earth or elsewhere. Even the peak of Mount Everest is littered with oxygen bottles, and civilians have been to outer space. “I always thought the great age of exploration ended in the 1800s,” says Lewis. “Since then it hasn’t been possible to be a person like [18th-century English explorer] Joseph Banks, who went on voyages to exotic islands to classify butterflies and reptiles that nobody had ever seen. People had already done that. I thought that was all gone.”
That was before Lewis considered the ocean floor as a destination. Two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water, and that water is, on average, four miles deep. According to Hawkes, 94 percent of all life is aquatic, and half of the organisms that live only several hundred feet below the surface have yet to be cataloged.
Astronomical costs have kept all but the most well-funded explorers from the deep. Only four manned submersibles—the Russian Mir, the French Nautile, the Japanese Shinkai 6500, and the American Alvin—are capable of diving deeper than 20,000 feet, and each requires a support team that can cost $1 million per month in operational expenses. Even smaller manned submersibles and remote-operated vehicles, which are generally built for scientific research, must be launched from support ships. Consequently, the only accessible version of underwater tourism—besides visits to aquariums—is scuba diving, where you are limited to small exploration areas and relatively shallow depths while contending with the dangers of the bends.
Hawkes believes that the Aviator, which carries a price tag ranging from $1 million to $2 million, is the answer to scuba diving’s limitations and that it begins to address the economic prohibitions of deep-sea exploration. Although it can dive only a fraction of the depth that Alvin can reach, the 22-foot Aviator does not require a support team; it can be launched from a megayacht or even backed into the water with an SUV or pickup truck, and it can be transported from one location to another aboard a helicopter or a small plane.
Scientists, says Hawkes, could employ the Aviator or the next-generation Aviator as a less expensive means of exploring deepwater wrecks, hydrothermal vents, and organisms lurking thousands of feet below the surface. He views himself and other subsea researchers as modern-day Wright brothers, fueled by the possibilities of discovery but battling insufficient funding and relatively primitive technology. Like his aviation predecessors, Hawkes has many skeptics to convince, but Capt. Alfred McLaren is no longer one of them.
By his own estimation, McLaren has spent the equivalent of five years underwater. He was chief engineer and navigator of the USS Skipjack, the world’s fastest submarine, and later commanded the USS Queenfish, a nuclear attack submarine. After serving in more than 20 Cold War operations and retiring from the U.S. Navy, McLaren, who is also an instrument-rated pilot, traveled to the Titanic and Bismarck wreck sites aboard the Mir submersible.
McLaren once sold all of his possessions to enroll at Cambridge University and research polar studies. Since then, he has been a professor at the University of Colorado, publisher of Science News, and president of the Explorers Club, a 3,000-person organization with a membership that once included Robert Peary and counts Sir Edmund Hillary among its current members.
McLaren, like Lewis, is precisely the type of person Hawkes wanted to win over—someone who is both inquisitive and driven enough to satisfy that curiosity. After attending the inaugural Sub Sea Aviation School session, McLaren was convinced, calling the Deep Flight Aviator a revolutionary vessel. “I told my wife, ‘If I weren’t married to you, I’d marry [the Aviator],’ ” says McLaren. When he told Hawkes about that conversation with his wife, Hawkes said, “She’s mine! You can’t have her,” then wrapped his arms around the Aviator.
For all of the Aviator’s capabilities, Hawkes views the vessel as merely a progression toward his ultimate objective of building a true deep-sea manned submersible, one based on the Aviator design but also capable of exploring the bottom of the 36,000-foot-deep Marianas Trench, a site in the Western Pacific Ocean considered to be the deepest point on the planet. If such a machine were built, deep-sea exploration would be boundless, says McLaren. A pilot could survey shipwrecks, such as the Spanish galleon rumored to be resting on the ocean floor off the Georgia coast or the Confederate submarine that lies nearby. He or she could study the hydrothermal vents that expel superheated water and hydrogen sulfide, and research the microorganisms, or hyperthermophiles, that exist near the vents. The pilot could even take samples of the metals that precipitate from the vents, possibly discovering a renewable energy source of hydrocarbons.
Framed against such objectives, the Aviator represents only the infancy of underwater exploration. “We spend billions of dollars to go into space, and very few people get to do that,” says Lewis. “What is it? It’s a vacuum. There’s no life up there. Here we have this incredible universe underwater that very few people have seen. And now there’s a technology that makes it available for people to see and appreciate. Look at all that’s down there. We have no idea what is down there.” Not yet, at least.
Deep Flight Submersibles
The Deep Flight Aviator was appropriately named: It operates more like an aircraft than a traditional underwater vessel. While submarines and submersibles take on ballast and sink into the water, the Aviator dives, in much the same fashion as an airplane descends, with the pilot easing a yokelike joystick forward. “A good way to think of a [traditional] submersible is as a vertical sinking elevator,” says Graham Hawkes, founder of Deep Flight Submersibles and creator of the Aviator. “You open the valves, release air, it gets heavy, and it sinks. The Aviator doesn’t have a buoyancy system. It doesn’t have tanks.”
Batteries mounted in the vessel’s rear compartment power the twin thrusters, which are also located on the rear of the Aviator. The thrusters propel the Aviator forward, creating enough downforce (as much as 1,000 pounds of thrust) on the wings to push the vessel deeper into the water. To turn the Aviator, the pilot pushes the joystick to either side to operate the ailerons on the wings. To return to the surface, the pilot pulls back on the joystick.
The two pilots sit in form-fitting shells, strapped in by five-point harnesses. Pure oxygen streams into the shells, while a soda-sorb scrubber extracts carbon dioxide from the interior. Pilots can speak with each other through an intercom system, and they can communicate with a surface vessel through a VHF transmission. The shells are topped by clear bubble-shaped acrylic pods, which seemingly melt away into the water. “As soon as you go underwater, the dome is gone,” says Hawkes. “The experience is that you’re in an old biplane with your head and shoulders out in the airstream. There’s no sense of claustrophobia. It’s a tremendous feeling. You can never go back and climb in a normal sub.”
See story, “Fantastic Voyaging“