Near the Ocean Floor

Before I began my career in the venture capital business, I had the great fortune to serve as a nuclear test engineer with General Dynamics' Electric Boat Division (EB) in Groton, Connecticut, for seven years.

One particular Alpha sea trial of a 688 fast-attack sub - the U.S.S. La Jolla sticks out in my mind. We left port the evening of July 26, 1981, as the wind on the Atlantic picked up to about a Sea State Three. This provided enough broad-band ambient noise so that La Jolla could conduct most of her maneuvers without being detected by the Soviets, trawling the North Atlantic gathering intelligence on U.S. warships...

We ran on the surface for a few hours as the crew (I was part of EB's team of 20 civilian engineers working the sea trials), completed its lengthy checklist testing the satellite systems, on-board life systems, turbine engines, propulsion systems, etc., before the Captain gave the order for the submerged run. We proceeded down angle on the diving planes until we reached periscope depth and set out on a level trim. The crew tested the launch tubes by firing test probes, and tested the propeller shaft seals for leaks before going deeper. The Captain gave the order to bring the S6G plant to one-half power- the reactor went supercritical to keep up with the demand for more steam. The Captain ordered a full stop after an hour so that the engineers could conduct more tests. It was early morning on the 27th when we prepared to make a series of deeper dives and high-speed submerged runs.

The reactors surged to supercritical as we dove down to 360 feet at approximately 6000 rpm. Admiral Rickover (four star admiral best known as the "father of the nuclear navy") joined us in the engine room around 6:00 a.m. to run his part of the sea trials - putting the sub under maximum stress. The Admiral gave the "crash back" order, which threw the sub into high-speed reverse. Taking the La Jolla (weight about 7000 tons) from a full speed forward to a dead quick stop. The engineers from EB quickly took data on the subs' performance. We waited for the "ahead 1/3 " order, which steadies the sub, from the Admiral, which if even a few seconds too late, drags the sub into reverse speed due to the full reverse thrust of the propeller (subs are not designed to go backwards). The Captain called "ship dead in the water" - but the Admiral again did not give the "ahead 1/3 " order. We started to move backward as the sub went into full reverse thrust (we were up to twelve knots) and we went down fast - the sound of the hull popping. The nose of the submarine had been thrown into a diving angle and the sub listed or rotated severely. The Captain had to make a choice, and called the "ahead 1/3" order himself, to regain control of the sub. The sub plummeted several hundred more feet over the next three minutes, taking us to within a half of the subs length from the bottom, as he tried to gain control. My EB team knew the ship had never gone significantly below 400 feet prior to this day, and the U.S.S. Thresher had met a tragic end under similar circumstances. Making matters worse, we realized we were caught in a contest of wills and ego of military personnel and we were too close to our lower limit - crush depth. Fortunately for all concerned, the Captain was able to regain control of the sub, narrowly escaping impact. Admiral Rickover, retired shortly thereafter at the age of 81.

We need to make tough decisions every day. These decisions demand thoughtful and rapid action while retaining composure. I expect this of myself, and my partners, and I look for these skills in our entrepreneurs.

Close Window