USS ALBACORE - "Forerunner of the Future" - AGSS 569 - Pioneering Research Vessel
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Early Life of the U.S.S. Albacore

By Captain James V. Ferrero, USNR (Ret)

Captain Ferrero was a plank owner onboard USS ALBACORE (AGSS 569). As part of an ongoing Friends of Albacore history project, Jim was asked to relate some of his experiences during ALBACORE’s initial testing period.

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In December of 1953, five officers and 32 enlisted personnel were aboard the ALBACORE. Their mission was: to accept the ship from its builder; to conduct acceptance testing including builders trials, technical evaluation (TECHEVAL) for the Bureau of Ships (BuShips); evaluate the vehicle’s operational worthiness (OPEVAL) to meet its mission as a test vehicle for BuShips/ David Taylor Model Basin (DTMB) and as a target platform for Operational Test & Evaluation Force (OPTEVFOR). The officers were: Lcdr Kenny Gummerson, Lt. Ted Davis, Lt. Stan Hecker, Lt. Tom Cuddy and Lt. Jim Ferrero. This group had been carefully selected based upon their past submarine operational and engineering backgrounds. Other key players during this early period were Adm. Swede Momsen (BuShips), Cdr. Harry Jackson (Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – PNS - Design Superintendent), Cdr. Chuck Spoerer (Ship Superintendent) and Capt. Slade Cutter (Submarine Force Atlantic Force Material Officer).

I am Jim Ferrero and I consider myself to be one of the luckiest officers to have been assigned to man, sail and evaluate the first true submarine ever to have been designed and built by the U.S. Navy since the HOLLAND was delivered on 18 April, 1900. It was an engineer’s dream to have a test laboratory to prove out an untested design. I have been asked to recapture some of the interesting events which took place during the first two years of the ALBACORE’s life. Since many of the events I am going to relate occurred some 55 years ago, my memory may not be totally correct as to the exact details or time frame, so bear with me if someone from that era remembers something different.

I am going to relate this information in three separate time periods: Completion of Construction and Acceptance Testing, December 1953 – 8 April 1954; Shake Down Cruise, April 1954 – July 1954; and Operational Testing (DTMB, BuShips & OPTEVFOR), July 1954 - December 1955.

Construction and Acceptance Testing

Prior to going to sea, the ship’s crew had to sign off on all yard testing. One of the more interesting tests was that of our battery circuit breakers. This involved hooking up the two batteries with very heavy cables via the passageway and then causing a dead fault in the system to see if the breakers operated to spec. When the fault was inserted, it caused the connecting cables to jump several feet into the air and caught one of our electricians in the crotch as he was observing the test. Ouch!

When inspecting the paint job, we discovered that large sheets of the paint would peel off the pressure hull under the superstructure. We rejected the job and the yard (Shop 17) would have to remove the superstructure and repaint. In order to make the yard repaint, we had a big review involving the shipyard commander and Sublant’s Force Material Officer.

When inspecting the main ballast tanks, we found only one small flood port per tank versus the 6-8 holes per tank on fleet boats. We found out that this was not a design deficiency but part of the design to reduce drag. I later wondered if THRESHER was configured in the same way with her blow system and only one small opening per tank to blow out the water.

After our ashore testing, sea trials were conducted until 8 April 1954. Sometimes enroute to our operating area, we would exchange coffee for lobsters with friendly fishermen. During our first surface testing involving full power runs for an extended period, we found that the new design wanted to dive. As we increased speed, the bow started to dig in and water started to “climb” up the sail. I asked the design superintendent, who was on the bridge, what was going to happen. He said he did not know and that we should rig for collision until the water stopped rising. Eventually it stopped about four feet from the top of the sail. Of interest during this test was that the surface speed was about 1/3 of that later achieved submerged.

Submerged testing - our first dive and then our dive to designed test depth. The first dive with some 50 yard birds aboard was very uneventful. We returned to the yard and incorporated much instrumentation for the second dive. A series of internal X-configured strain gages were installed throughout the ship to measure hull compression as we increased depth. The gages were hooked up to instrumentation so we could see results in real time. Since we were the first submarine to use HY-80 steel for the pressure hull, many land tests had already been conducted by PNS to determine our crush depth. Our test depth was set at 1/3 of crush depth. During this test (the dive to test depth), which took several hours, the steel did not relieve as predicted. We sat at one depth for hours and finally the Skipper said “Let’s Go” and down we went. Finally, the steel did relieve at 2/3rds test depth and everyone was happy except our ShipSup who had gone to the head during our “wait” period. When we increased depth, the hull compressed but the head structure did not. He could not get out for several hours since the door was stuck!

During this testing period, we started to understand potential long-term problems. For one, our GM 16-338 pancake engines were no match for our old GM diesels we learned to love on the fleet boats. We had a GM representative aboard plus many yard birds during early testing to keep those babies humming at 80% power. During this period, we were competing for spare parts with the 563 boats which had the same engines. Also of concern was the shaft seal which required constant attention. I imagine the seals became a problem when the counter rotating propellers were installed on ALBACORE and JACK. Another recurring problem was the unique 3000 psi hydraulic control system. Several times it would malfunction and we would find ourselves with full dive on the stern planes at max speed. The cause was found to be phenolic seats in the control valves flaking or breaking. A redesign solved the problem.

The last of Navy trials were made for the Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV). As a result of all acceptance testing, we had many open “squawks” as we entered our shake down cruise. Most of them were resolved during the next year of operation and a few were not.

Shake Down Cruise

On a personal note, prior to departing for New London, my wife had dinner with me one duty night. At the time, she was 8 7/8 months pregnant with our first child. We had great difficulty getting her aboard via the forward hatch. Upon departing, she almost got stuck and for a while we thought the child would be born aboard. Within a few days, my first daughter was born in the hospital wing of the Naval prison in Portsmouth.

Our first port of call was New London where we docked at State Pier. This was the first ship handling experience with a single screw sub and no tug. The skipper brought her in hot and backed down full for a great landing. All of us later learned how to handle landings – great fun! While in port, we had MANY visitors from other subs and staffs.

During our transit to Key West, we all started to learn the many capabilities inherent in a pure submersible. We did daily ops out of Key West and visited Havana, Cuba for several days. All hands had a GREAT TIME. To this day, I still don’t know how we got out of port safely.

While in port at Key West, we were involved in engine repairs and spare parts acquisition. We left port with about 1 and 2/3 engines. Somewhere off Cape Hatteras, we only had one engine in use which we ran at 80% power. As it started to fail, the skipper called for a tow. We used the engine to fully charge the battery until the engine failed completely. About 1 and 1/2 days later, we were taken under tow by an ASR. Later, we were passed over to another ASR. Upon reaching the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, we cast off the tow and completed the trip on battery power. The transit through the canal was in almost 100% fog.

Operational Testing

The next several weeks were spent in getting parts for our “Power Plant” and putting extensive instrumentation aboard for our next 12 months of testing. One of the interesting pieces of instrumentation was the installation of external rakes with pitot tubes to measure boundary layer flow. These rakes stuck out throughout the length of the boat and made it look like an angry porcupine.

The following series of tests can be grouped into these categories: Stability, control, and drag determination. Sometimes we had interesting failures which were unrelated to the tests.

Our first speed run was 13-15 October 1954 off Province Town (P-Town). At that time, we achieved what was thought to be the highest submarine speed ever achieved by a U.S. sub. The speed record was later captured by a Russian Alfa class sub in 1977 at 44+ knots. Interestingly, our power plant only delivered 7500 SHP while the Alfa had some 40,000 SHP, a single screw and a small boat. The U.S. design was efficient.

While in the yard later, the entire hull was sanded in order to reduce drag. We added about 2+ knots. We predicted that the new Silver Zinc (AgZn) battery and stern configuration would add an additional 3-5 knots. In early 1955, Collier’s Magazine published an article entitled “I Rode The World’s Fastest Submarine”.

To determine the effects of the prop on flow fields, we went through two separate submerged towed events: one with the prop on and one with the prop off. The first test was relatively easy in that we only had to compensate for the weight of the tow cable. The prop off test was more fun due to the weight loss aft and the tow cable effects. Upon diving, we took a sharp dive angle before regaining control. These data were also used to determine the flow field and its interaction with the prop.

During one of our many high-speed tests, our forward rescue buoy carried away and its cable took a few turns around the prop. We eventually cleared the cable, released it with a marker buoy and operated for a while without a rescue buoy.

To check out the electrical breaker systems and equipment mounts, we were “depth charged” from a safe distance. More fun.

We had two very serious casualties where we almost lost the boat. One occurred during our “inherent” stability tests. For reference, fleet boats were totally unstable vehicles. Any time you started a down angle, the boat continued to increase the angle in that direction unless corrective force was applied even when the planes were returned to zero. Our tests were to determine if the boat would return to a zero bubble given a high speed down angle and then placing all control surfaces on zero. The tests were initially started at 2/3 speed, with moderate angles and then increased to 25 knots and larger angles. The test started at about 275 feet and went up and down like a sine wave. During one of the “up”, going over the hill and then down cycles, the prop came out of the water when we started down and unloaded the electrical system. This caused an explosion in the cubicle and opened many circuits. At 25 knots and a 45-degree down angle, you clear 100 feet every four seconds. We thanked the designers for our crush depth reserve.

The other incident involved how much weight the hull could support at various angles and speeds. During a test involving adding many tons of water into the forward trim tank, we lost all power and started down with an ever increasing down angle. Once again, we gave thanks to our design safety factor. In coping with these accidental problems, the big rudder was also used to slow the boat down. The speed would be cut in half when “full” rudder was used, but it also caused a “snap roll”. The dorsal rudder proved to be very ineffective during these events.

The above memorable events are at the top of my memory recall.

Now as to important visitors. We hosted and gave rides to many VIPs. In the fall of 1954, I was given the task to pick up Rickover one bright and early cold day in Boston. During the trip north, he questioned me about many technical details about the boat and its engineering systems. Once aboard, he changed into a set of coveralls and we started a prolonged and detailed tour. Later that day, after we moored, I took him back to Boston.

Early in 1955, we hosted Rickover, COMSUBLANT and COMSUBPAC all at the same time for an at-sea demo. During the trip, this group was discussing the shipbuilding program for the next fiscal year. As a young, innocent, non-political line officer, I was awed on how the political game was played and contract awards were made.

In the fall of 1955, we were ordered to Key West. As it turned out, the British Navy was interested in the new U.S. design and in maybe getting some attack boats like the “B” girls (Barbel class). The CNO, Adm. Burke, invited the First Sea Lord of the British Navy (Adm. Mountbatten) and hosted him for a ride aboard ALBACORE for a demo. After that visit, we limped back to PNS on our pancake ENGINES going 80/90 and started a stand down period for the “new” stern section.

My life has certainly been blessed by three major happenings. The experience aboard an experimental submarine with a group of wonderful people; later, as an employee of Hughes Air Craft Company, I was the plank owner and Program Manager for the AWG-9 weapon system and Phoenix missile for the F-111B aircraft which eventually became the F-14 fighter. My last adventure was with stealth ships. Now in retirement, I call myself a cold war military/industrial retiree.


Steve Cuff, the ALBACORE ShipSup from 1954-1956, provided the following comments on Jim’s recollections.

An interesting but small detail Jim didn’t mention was that on the first attempt at underwater towing in August 1955, it was found that the cable which had been wound with the data-link wires internal had a hydrodynamic effect and “flew” through the water making an angle at the bow receiver where strain gages were mounted. The result of that discovery was a new braided cable that towed in a predictable catenary and we got good data from that point on.

The Submarine Rescue Ship TRINGA, ASR-16, did the towing and I was aboard TRINGA during the test. The aft towing winch on TRINGA was supposed to keep tension on the cable constant automatically. It didn’t, so they had to station someone at the controls.

Not having much to do during my two day stay aboard TRINGA and being a bit bored, I asked the Chief for the instruction manual and wiring diagram for the winch. He said it hadn’t worked since launching a few years ago so they always operated it manually, but he got the requested documents. I removed the cover plates and checked out all the wiring. I found a couple of errors which I had them fix and, lo and behold, their expensive automatic winch worked just like it was supposed to. I guess that’s what young EDOs are supposed to be able to do. They were duly impressed.

There was another explosion and fire during and ALBACORE trial run off the Isle of Shoals. John Kassabian, from the design group, and I were aboard. This event was not planned. It was the week before a group of new flag officers were supposed to ride. ALBACORE was submerged at high speed, doing the sine waves Jim mentioned, in a downward attitude when there was an explosion in the forward battery and the lights went out. The boat started filling with smoke from the ensuing fire and we lost propulsion.

Jon Boyes, who was Skipper at the time, was amongst the coolest guys I’ve ever seen operate in a crisis. He first got the boat leveled off, then took damage reports from the Chief of the Boat and when the fire was out, brought the boat to periscope depth, looked around 360 degrees to make sure no one was operating in the area, then surfaced.

We ended up powerless and had to be towed back to Portsmouth. During that time, I was on the radio to the yard arranging for around the clock shifts over the weekend to repair the damage. The main motor had a burned out winding. The motor got rewound in place and all the fire damage was repaired in time to take the new Admirals out the following week.

This was, without a doubt, my most exciting event aboard ALBACORE except for slipping as I tried to jump from the hull to the stern planes and almost falling into the dry dock at 0100 one misty night while trying to get the ship ready for undocking – but that’s another story.