SUBJECT: USS Albacore (Case Study)

SUBJECT: USS Albacore (Case Study)

FROM: Director, National Integrated R&D Dept. 

TO: Staff

CC: Sea Point Applied Research personnel

SUPPLEMENTARY READING: (N.I.R.D.D, required / S.P.A.R, recommended) 

  • U.S.S. Albacore "Forerunner of the Future" by Robert P. Largess and James L. Mandelblatt (ISBN 0-915819-24-4)*
  • "I Rode the World's Fastest Sub" by Cornelius Ryan, Collier's Magazine April 1, 1955 issue*

*Available in the N.I.R.D.D archives

DATE: 2022/08/16


The USS Albacore (AGSS-569) is probably the most important ship, or certainly the most important submarine, you've never heard of. Even those half a million visitors each summer that board her in the Albacore’s second life as a museum ship in Portsmouth, NH don't fully realize her importance and what she's contributed to the modern navy. 

Christened(1) on August 1, 1953 and entering unrestricted service on April 12, 1955 the Albacore is the first active duty submarine to use a teardrop shaped hull. This wasn't a new concept but it was the first time it was tried in earnest since round submarine hulls were too hard to control on the surface and had a tendency to capsize. Before the Albacore and, quite in quick succession, the Nautilus, submarines were ironically intended to spend most of their time on the surface transiting from one point to another. Subs before the Albacore and Nautilus only submerged to attack or escape the enemy. Albacore_TR660It is hard to understate, for those of us without first hand experience on submarines, the dramatic differences between the Albacore and everything else around her at the time. It was akin to the contemporaneous transition between prop driven aircraft and those powered by jet engines. The teardrop shaped hull alone, with a conventional diesel-electric power plant, enabled her to run at nearly 30 knots submerged; 50% faster underwater than any other submarine on active duty. These speeds would allow her to out pace sonar detection during anti-submarine warfare exercises and dominate her opponents. She held the underwater speed record for most of her service length, only losing it temporarily to the USS Skipjack whose hull was itself derived from the research generated by the Albacore.

Albacore Speed Card

Albacore was designed to do more than set speed records. She was intended to figure out how to control a submarine with such a high top speed as well as test new technologies such as the later infamous dive brake system intended to arrest an out of control dive. The development ranged over 5 phases, where each time she was pulled into dry dock and a new tail and other technologies were grafted and fitted onto her. The hull was made of the new HY-80 steel (the 80 = 80,000 psi) which gave her a theoretical collapse depth of 1,170 feet. The purpose of the improved steel was not to see how deep a sub could go. Her added capability was a sign of how dangerous her work was expected to be. The designers expected her to lose control at some point during her work and the HY-80 steel was meant to give the crew a greater margin of safety, which they needed and then some. AlbacoreAlbacore was fitted with a number of experimental steering surfaces including several different types of sterns and a dorsal fin on the sail. Most of these ideas never were implemented in fleet submarines because they provided substantially more maneuverability than the navy felt they needed and in some cases more than the crew could handle.AlbacoreThe Phase I stern, for example, enabled her to turn faster in a circle than a jet plane and gave her "dog fighting" like agility underwater. The combination of the speed and agility gave her an unpredictable quality. What some of the crew termed a "snarkish" quality in reference to Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark", a copy of which one of the principle designers, Dr. Kenneth Davidson, presented to Albacore's first skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gummerson, after Dr. Davidson had gone out with the boat on one of her sea trials. "The Hunting of the Snark" is a poem about an unusual ship hunting an elusive and undefinable creature. 

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! 

But we've got our brave Captain to thank"

(So the crew would protest) "that he's brought us 

the best---

A perfect and absolute blank!" - The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

This passage summed up how much was unknown about the handling characteristics of the Albacore even with all of the detailed hydrodynamic studies and the crew's extensive experience with submarines. 


"Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes;

A thing, as the Bellman remarked,

That frequently happens in tropical climes,

When a vessel is, so to speak, "snarked." - The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

A ship that sometimes sails backwards was the perfect summation of how counterintuitive hydrodynamics of submarines can be and mirrored the concerns of the designers.

"When we came to the Albacore it was unbeknownst to anybody just what we had our hands on. None of us had ever gone faster than 8 or 9 knots submerged or titled 30 degrees or 40 degrees up or down -- especially down! The first time we submerged Harry Jackson [chief designer of the Albacore] said, We don't know whether it's going to go down stern first or bow first. And I said, Why didn't you tell me this before? And he said, “We didn't want you to miss out on any sleep." - Lt. Cmdr. Ken Gummerson at the 39th-anniversary reunion

In a few cases some of the Phase I crew, all seasoned submariners, requested and were granted transfers off Albacore because of their unease with her capabilities, and her "snarkish" tendencies. The crew developed a number of techniques to counter a loss of control during dives and turns that were characteristic of a teardrop shaped hull. However it was their testing of a technology to counter the danger of an out of control dive that almost sent her to the bottom forever. In Phase III the Albacore was fitted with a dive brake system, similar to the air brakes on a plane. The system consisted of 10 metal hydraulically actuated flaps fitted to her circumference. During the first test of the dive brakes the boat immediately lost control and plunged to the bottom of the ocean striking a glancing blow on the bottom as the crew recovered control. To calm the crew an announcement was made that the submarine had hit a water bubble, so the skipper wouldn't have to admit that they had lost control of the boat. The skipper estimated that they reached a depth of approximately 1,600 ft which was more than 400 feet below her theoretical crush depth. The HY-80 steel fulfilled its promise and then some. AlbacoreIn addition to the above Albacore pioneered the use of the airplane yoke style control to steer the sub, a liquid polymer "skin" system meant reduce friction and boost speeds, a high pressure emergency surfacing system developed in the wake of the loss of the USS Thresher and other systems and ideas still classified to this day. The USS Albacore was decommissioned in 1972 and mothballed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. In the 1980s Joseph Sawtelle and a group of Portsmouth locals led an effort to save the Alabcore from becoming target practice for the US Navy. Through a herculean effort they were able to secure the USS Albacore from the US Navy, have it towed by US Army tug boat from Philadelphia to Portsmouth, and eventually, after cutting a flooded channel through a 4 lane highway and a train bridge, raised the Albacore onto dry land where it sits today, several miles away from where she was built.AlbacoreIf you are in or passing through Portsmouth, NH it is strongly encouraged that you take a slight detour and visit the Albacore museum. Unlike many naval museums it is unique in that most of the submarine is still accessible to visitors. As you work your way through the submarine, if you can imagine the noise and activity of a running boat, you'll get a real flavor for the daily sacrifices that are being made on our nation's behalf. And if you ever wonder what our men and women in uniform are doing during our times of relative peace think of the USS Albacore.

  1. The proponents of the Albacore demonstrated a deft hand at navigating the U.S. military bureaucracy and were persistent in their entreaties to the powers that be for funding to carry out the necessary proof of concept studies (e.g. Study 58). This is especially significant in a world where air power dominated the Pentagon. People such as Dr. Ken Davidson, Adm. Momsen, and Adm Cochrane were the key players in getting the Albacore built and built in such a way that the Navy would take the results seriously. As a result she was built as a full size "ship of the line" but without armaments. This way she could be deployed to ASW and other exercises to demonstrate her potential but would remain a research vessel and could not be surreptitiously ushered into operational service. (Note: Dr. Ken Davidson should serve as an model/example to current and aspiring N.I.R.D.D. staffers)