The Skipjack Class – Unleashing a New Kind of Sea Monster

There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!

“Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep. And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures [mother whales and their babies] at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still forever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy”

In the classic novel Moby Dick, Ishmael has a mystic vision of the peaceful center of whale life in the deep that mirrors the deep calm in his own being. This vision of the whale as a symbol of peace contrasts with Ahab’s interpretation of the whale as evil and the agent of destruction.

Submarine development has been a progressive journey. In the earliest days, man dreamed of being able to travel under the water in a self-contained vessel. The journey would sustain life while allowing the operator to operate unencumbered and protected from the forces of the open oceans. Man had learned early in his evolution that traveling over the seas was a quick way to trade with far away nations. Plus, in at least one culture, the ability to explore new worlds for riches became an almost unstoppable motivation.

Early submarines had so many things to overcome. Technology and materials stood at the forefront. How could you build a vessel that could operate submerged and resist the increasing pressures found at deeper depths? New materials would have to be developed and then methods for adhering the metals had to be perfected. Rivets were the standard for many surface ships made of steel but rivets would be subject to the pressures of the depths.

Each phase of submarine development added another triumph. Better engines (diesels) that used less volatile fuel certainly was a game changer. The electric systems that were more reliable helped the emerging boats to do things never before possible. But from the early 1900’s to the mid nineteen fifties, the hull design was a limiting factor. Diesel boats were designed to travel on the surface and operate submerged. The hull shape was designed to maximize the sped on the surface.

The advent of atomic power gave the designers a brand new opportunity. Looking at a fish, their body shapes are designed for movement at high speeds under the water in most cases. That allows them to survive the predators that are not in short supply. Even the giant whales are shaped in such a way that they can achieve very impressive speeds.

The Skipjack Class

The Skipjack class was a class of United States Navy nuclear submarines (SSNs) that entered service in 1959-61. This class was named after its lead boat, USS Skipjack. The new class introduced the teardrop hull and the S5W reactor to U.S. nuclear submarines. The Skipjacks were the fastest U.S. nuclear submarines until the Los Angeles-class submarines, the first of which entered service in 1974.

The Skipjacks’ design was based on the USS Albacore’s high-speed hull design. The hull and innovative internal arrangement were similar to the diesel-powered Barbel class that were built concurrently. The design of the Skipjacks was very different from the Skate-class submarines that preceded the Skipjacks.

Unlike the Skates, this new design was maximized for underwater speed by fully streamlining the hull like a blimp. This required a single screw aft of the rudders and stern planes. Adoption of a single screw was a matter of considerable debate and analysis within the Navy, as two shafts offered redundancy and improved maneuverability. The so-called “body-of-revolution hull” reduced her surface sea-keeping, but was essential for underwater performance. Also like Albacore, the Skipjacks used HY-80 high-strength steel, with a yield strength of 80,000 psi (550 MPa), although this was not initially used to increase the diving depth relative to other US submarines. HY-80 remained the standard submarine steel through the Los Angeles class.

Another Barbel-like innovation was the combination of the conning tower, control room, and attack center in one space. This was continued in all subsequent US nuclear submarines. Combining the functions in one space was facilitated by the adoption of “push-button” ballast control, another feature of Albacore. Previous designs had routed the trim system piping through the control room, where the valves were manually operated. The “push-button” system used hydraulic operators on each valve, remotely electrically operated (actually via toggle switches) from the control room. This greatly conserved control room space and reduced the time required to conduct trim operations. The overall layout made coordination of the weapons and ship control systems easier during combat operations.

                                       

Much of the overall internal arrangement was continued in the subsequent Thresher- and Sturgeon-class submarines. The Skipjacks’ five compartments were called the Torpedo Room, Operations Compartment, Reactor Compartment, Auxiliary Machinery Space (AMS), and Engine Room. With the addition of a missile compartment, the arrangement of the first 41 US nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) was similar. The design was primarily single-hull, with a double hull around the torpedo room and AMS for ballast tanks.

The design was improved on the Threshers, the one-off Tullibee, and subsequent attack submarines by relocating the torpedo room into the operations compartment via angled midships torpedo tubes to make room for a large sonar sphere in the bow. The George Washington class, the first SSBNs, were derived from the Skipjacks, with USS George Washington (SSBN-598) rebuilt from the incomplete first Scorpion. The hull of Scorpion was laid down twice, as the original hull was redesigned to become the George Washington. Also, the material for building Scamp was diverted into building Theodore Roosevelt, which delayed Scamp’s progress.

The bow planes were moved to the massive sail to cut down on flow-induced noise near the bow sonar arrays. They were known as sail planes or fairwater planes. The Skipjacks were the first class built with sail planes; they were later backfitted on the Barbels. This design feature would be repeated on all U.S. nuclear submarines until the improved Los Angeles-class submarine, the first of which was launched in 1988. The small “turtleback” behind the sail was the exhaust piping of the auxiliary diesel generator.

The Skipjacks also introduced the S5W reactor to U.S. nuclear submarines. It was known as ASFR (Advanced Submarine Fleet Reactor) during development. The S5W was used on 98 U.S. nuclear submarines of 8 classes and the first British nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, making it the most-used US Navy reactor design to date.

Service

Skipjack was authorized in the FY 1956 new construction program and commissioned in April 1959. Each hull cost around $40 million. Skipjack was certified as the “world’s fastest submarine” after initial sea trials in March 1959, although the actual speed attained was classified. The Skipjacks remained the fastest US nuclear-powered submarines until the first of the Los Angeles class entered service in 1974. This was due to the increased size of the Thresher and Sturgeon classes, which retained Skipjack’s S5W power plant, plus the introduction of the skewback screw, which was quiet but mechanically inefficient. The Skipjacks saw service during the Vietnam War and most of the Cold War.

The Skipjack-class submarines were withdrawn from service in the late 1980s and early 1990s except for Scorpion, which sank on 5 June 1968 southwest of the Azores while returning from a Mediterranean deployment, with all 99 crewmembers lost.

Type: Nuclear-powered fast attack submarine

Displacement:

Surfaced: 3075 tons (3124 t)

Submerged: 3513 tons (3600 t)[1]

Length: 251 ft 8 in (76.71 m)

Beam: 31.5 ft (9.65 m)

Propulsion:

1 S5W reactor, geared steam turbines (15,000 shp (11,000 kW)), 1 shaft

Speed: 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) surfaced

33 knots (61 km/h; 38 mph) submerged

Range: unlimited except by food.

Test depth: 700 ft (210 m)

Complement: 93

Armament: 6 × 21 inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes (bow)

24 × Mark 37 torpedoes, Mark 14 torpedoes, Mark 16 torpedoes, Mark 45 ASTOR nuclear torpedoes, and/or Mark 48 torpedoes.

 

I never got the chance to ride a true Skipjack Class boat.

But being a crew member on the USS George Washington, I am reminded of how close I came.

Mister Mac

14 thoughts on “The Skipjack Class – Unleashing a New Kind of Sea Monster

  1. My first boat was the Shark and was a true learning experience. Qualified in 67 and as a submarine Auxiliaryman couldn’t have asked for a better boat to get qualified on.

    1. I am proud to have served on the USS Scamp SSN-588, 69-71. One thing I noticed in your mentioning of the USS Scorpion that she was lost on June 5, 1968. I’ve always heard and seen in print that she was lost on May 22nd 1968. May she and her crew rest in peace.

      1. Scorpion was lost on 22 May 1968, with 99 crewmen dying in the incident. The Navy suspected possible failure and launched a search, but Scorpion and her crew were declared “presumed lost” on 5 June. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June.

  2. I was a plank owner on the third 637 class commissioned, USS Ray SSN-653. We pioneered a few firsts including sail planes that could be turned vertical for under ice surfacing.

  3. Reblogged this on Dolphin Dave and commented:
    Other than my own boat (727), the Skipjacks are my favorite nuclear-powered subs. In fact, the very first boat I ever stepped foot upon was the USS Scamp in January of 1982 in New London. I fell in love with her and I desperately wanted to go to sea on such a sleek and fast machine.

    Alas, the Navy had other plans for me and I never got the chance to even ride one. But man they were Submarine Hot Rods!

  4. USS Shark SSN 591 was my first boat, qualified on her in 1969. The Skipjack class were the sportscars of the fleet and great boats to learn on.

  5. My first nuke was the USS SNOOK SSN 592, I was in the comm crew in Pascagoula, MS. After riding 2 DB’s. I was a TM2 and the Snook was a dream come true, we were the first true fast attack to deploy to WESTPAC and could only go into Okinawa and Subic Bay. Was there for the Cuban crisis and set quite a few firsts, we probably set the speed record in the Sea of Japan after getting photos of a Russian missile submarine launching two missiles and then being spotted. We left the area at hi speed on the order all ahead flank add turns slowly, after the pit soward was rigged in we kept adding speed. Don’t know how fast we went but went through several vibration spots which we in the torpedo room figured was caused by increasing speed, we also peeled off quite a bit of paint. She was truly my all time favorite. I went to shore duty in 63 after almost 9 years of sea duty, later rode two Sturgion class boats, put the Sea Devil SSN 664 in commission and later going to the Hammerhead SSN 663.

  6. I served on Skipjack Class USS Sculpin (SSN-590), she was commissioned 6 month before my arrival.

    I had just graduated from Submarine School. I became a Sonarman and continued building and designing Submarine Sonar Systems for almost 50 years.

    Sculpin gave that to me.

  7. USS Francis Scott Key SSBN657 Blue. My first boat I was assign TAD until my Sub Class convened was the USS Tiger one, SS 43. An old WWII Diesel boat that they used as a sonar testing platform out of Groton/New London Base. That was a wild ride in mid Jan in the North Atlantic. Spent 3 weeks on her…

  8. I served on USS Skipjack SSN-585 as the last Supply Officer before decommissioning in April of 90’. I spent 36 months onboard Skipjack and went on her last Deployment to the Mediterranean Sea! J arrived on Skipjack in Jan 87 as a wet behind the ear Butter Bar Ensign It was my very first tour in the Navy! What an eye opening and life changing experience! My Supply Department was successful due to all the incredibly dedicated and talented that worked directly for me and with me from other departments! Those guys were the best America had to offer and did to their service, patriotism, and dedication to the mission of submarine operations during the Cold War, the end result was and still is U.S – 1, USSR-0. And how can I say that????? The USSR does not exist anymore! And that is thanks to Skipjack Sailors and all other American Submariners who have served or are still on eternal patrol like our Scorpion Brothers!

    1. Great memories William. I consider myself to be one of the luckiest guys on the planet to have played a small part in the longest lasting modern “war”. I truly believe we saved untold millions from slavery and destruction. Thanks for your service
      Mac

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