Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reporter lives the submariners life aboard USS Albuquerque

The nuclear attack sub cost $900 million and was commissioned in 1983. It's now headed for Puget Soundfor salvage in November.

Charles D. Brunt, Albuquerque Journal
15 October 2015
ABOARD USS ALBUQUERQUE (SSN 706) – Cruising 600 feet below the surface of the Pacific last Friday aboard the nuclear-powered submarine USS Albuquerque – especially for a lifelong landlubber from New Mexico – leaves little doubt that I had entered a truly alien world.
With the exception of the patient and friendly submariners guiding me through the narrow, labyrinthine corridors of this underwater marvel, nothing inside the 362-foot-long submarine seemed familiar. The constant hum of its machinery, the changing temperatures as we moved through the boat’s three interior levels, and the innumerable tiny rooms these 140 crew members live and work in for months at a time – completely submerged – test your senses of time and space.
But after climbing out of the minuscule hatch on the forward deck at the end of my eight-hour cruise, I felt I was saying goodbye to a faithful friend. I am not alone in that feeling.
The USS Albuquerque, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine that was commissioned on May 21, 1983, is headed for the scrap yard or, in more delicate terms, for decommissioning.
“The decommissioning will occur at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., and we begin that in November,” said Cmdr. Don Tenney, the Albuquerque’s 14th and final commanding officer.
“It’s actually a fairly long process. It’ll take about a year for the decommissioning. The decommissioning of a submarines is shutting down all the systems inside ... and defueling the nuclear reactor. After that, (it) will be stored for a period of time at the shipyard” before being put in dry dock and cut up for recycling, he said. Some of the boat’s equipment is likely to be transferred to other submarines that are still operational, Tenney said.
The USS Albuquerque – along with the Los Angeles-class subs USS San Francisco (SSN 711 ), USS Pasadena (SSN 752 ), USS Hampton (SSN 767 ) – make up Submarine Squadron 11, commanded by Capt. Gene Doyle.
The Navy is slowly replacing its remaining 41 Los Angeles-class submarines, which first went into service in 1976, with new Virginia-class nuclear subs, such as the USS New Mexico (SSN 779), the sixth of 28 planned Virginia-class subs. The New Mexico was commissioned in March 2010, according to a Navy fact sheet. Its home port is Groton, Conn.
A Day Aboard
As part of the Navy’s efforts to honor the USS Albuquerque, a few media representatives were invited to participate in a daylong training cruise Friday. As the sun rose over a cloudless San Diego that morning, the flat-black sub docked at Point Loma.
Climbing through the snug hatch and down the 10-foot ladder into the sub’s hull, I realized why the medical release I had signed asked whether I was claustrophobic.
Forget the spacious control room you saw in “The Hunt for Red October.”
This place is small. Really small. It’s impossible for two people to pass through a hallway unless both are sideways.
The captain’s “stateroom” is about the size of my cubicle at the Journal . The largest living space in the sub, the enlisted mess hall, is slightly smaller than my living room – and more than 100 sailors eat here four times a day while working in shifts.
During a safety briefing in the officer’s wardroom, we feel a nearly imperceptible movement.
“Are we moving?” a television reporter asks. Lt. Beau Portillo, the boat’s weapons officer, says we’ve been underway for several minutes and had already cleared Point Loma.
After the briefing, we tour – that is, look into – officer and enlisted quarters, which are truly Spartan. The tightly stacked sleeping berths, in the words of the boat’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Brown, are akin to “sleeping under your coffee table,” but something you get used to.
The torpedo room, which typically carries a combination of up to 24 Tomahawk cruise missiles and MK-48 torpedoes, is toward the front of the boat. It has four horizontal launch tubes and a hydraulic racking system for moving the missiles and torpedoes into the tubes. I was surprised to learn that the cruise missiles do, indeed, launch horizontally before turning vertical, breaking the surface and firing their rocket motors. And torpedoes can be wire-guided to their targets.
That information came from Chief Fire Control Technician Ramon Escalante, an Albuquerque native and 1999 graduate of West Mesa High School.
Affable and well-versed in many of the vessel’s systems, Escalante also explained the machine room, which houses a backup diesel engine capable of providing emergency electrical power.
“This is where all of our auxiliary equipment is,” Escalante said. “It’s mostly atmospheric controls, like our CO2 scrubbers. We have to get rid of the carbon dioxide we breathe out. We’ll go for weeks underwater without new air, and this unit recycles all of that air. To create more oxygen, we’ve got an oxygen generator. Basically, we take sea water, turn it into regular drinking water, then turn it into deionized water. Through electrolysis, we separate out the oxygen and store it in oxygen banks for dispersal as we need it.”
The vessel’s nuclear reactor and engine room, for obvious reasons, are off-limits to visitors. But Escalante says the reactor creates steam that drives a turbine that drives the sub’s main shaft and propeller.
Dive Time
Next came dive time, which I observed from the bustling, crew-packed control room. In the middle of the room are two side-by-side periscopes that look and operate much as you’d expect. On the room’s starboard or right side, an array of digital monitors linked to various monitors keep technicians abreast of what’s on the surface. At one point that day, they were tracking 28 vessels – a “normal” amount of activity for these waters, they said.
On the room’s port, or left, side is the dive team – the guys who actually “drive” the sub while facing a wall full of analog gauges and digital screens.
While the boat is underway, there’s constant communication among the crew. Much of the chatter is foreign to me, though commands are spoken and acknowledged in precise English.
Noteworthy: There really is an Ooo-gah horn that sounds twice when a dive is initiated.
Once submerged at 150 feet, the boat performed a number of tight turns, during which it leans slightly, similar to a turning airplane.
It also did a steep 25-degree dive and then ascent, which forces everyone aboard to lean at am awkward angle to keep from sliding downhill. Eventually, we dived to 600 feet, but you only knew that if you were watching a gauge or if someone told you so.
For me, a highlight of the day was when the Albuquerque resurfaced and we got a few minutes on the bridge – the small area at the top of the “sail.” The sail is the large “fin” atop the sub’s cylindrical body. It’s a tiny area, but on this cloudless, 80-degree day, it’s the best seat in the house. Secured to the boat by a safety harness, we watched flying fish glide ahead of the boat’s bow before diving into the deep blue Pacific. In the distance were a Navy frigate, several fishing and pleasure boats, and the San Diego skyline.
As a reminder of the sub’s vital military role, the officer of the deck and an MK-48 machine gunner stood watch on the bridge as the boat neared shore – a requirement since 9/11.
Escalante, who has been on the Albuquerque since August 2012, said he’s sorry to see his hometown’s namesake sub decommissioned, but he’s looking forward to his next assignment aboard its squadron-mate, the USS Hampton. After that, he’s hoping for a shore assignment where he can spend more time with his wife, his 4-year-old son and his 2-year-old daughter.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” to be the final commanding officer of the USS Albuquerque, Tenney said. “She’s got a great history, so you hate to see something like that go. But it has to happen. ... It’s time to bring in the new submarines.”
USS Albuquerque’s history
Construction of the USS Albuquerque began on Dec. 27, 1979, when its keel was laid by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp. in Groton, Conn. It was launched on March 13, 1982. The boat’s sponsor was Nancy L. Domenici, wife of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. It was commissioned on May 21, 1983.
When the boat was commissioned, then-Albuquerque Mayor Harry Kinney gave the commander a set of keys to a Rolls-Royce and issued a challenge: The first skipper who brought the sub up the Rio Grande to Albuquerque could claim the classic luxury car. It became a tradition for the keys to be handed over to the new commanding officer at each change-of-command ceremony.
The current holder of the keys – Cmdr. Don Tenney – said he’d like to see the keys returned to Mayor Richard Berry “for posterity.”
In its more than 32-year career, Albuquerque deployed more than 19 times, steamed more than 500,000 miles, and visited nearly 20 countries. The Albuquerque was also one of the first nuclear submarines to experience combat, gaining the moniker of “Sure Shooter of the Submarine Force” while successfully launching 10 Tomahawk cruise missiles during the Kosovo war in 1999.
On its 19th and final regular deployment, USS Albuquerque left Naval Station Point Loma on Feb. 6, 2015, and steamed more than 50,000 nautical miles during the deployment. Port visits were conducted in: Stirling, Australia; Duqm, Oman; and the island base Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It returned to its home port on Aug. war in 1999.
USS Albuquerque was capable of supporting various missions, including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface ship warfare, strike warfare, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, according to a Navy fact sheet.

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