36,000 Feet Under the Sea

The strange quest of San Anselmo's Graham Hawkes, who will dive a two-man submarine to the deepest point in the ocean. If someone gives him $7 million.

There are two propellers in the back of the minisub and wings on either side. Hawkes pilots the craft with joysticks that are small, because everything on Deep Flight had to be small to attain the desired agility and speed. Although cramming lots of instrumentation into little space was a challenge, during the years it took to finish Deep Flight, advances in computer technology caught up to the miniaturization problem. All the information that would have once required a large instrument panel is now shown on displays no larger than a television remote control clicker.

Hawkes initially launched Deep Flight in Monterey Bay to much fanfare and publicity. Now, off the tip of Baja, Calif., he's got to prove the sub works 1,000 feet down in the open ocean, where it's supposed to keep up with the fish. After a bit of swimming around the surface, he dives. A big, black manta ray swims by, then veers off. Hawkes tries to follow, but he can't. The craft is not as agile as it's supposed to be; its turns are lumbering. Something is wrong.

Hawkes calls off the dive and comes back to the surface. The crane lifts Deep Flight onto the ship. The inventor climbs out, discouraged, and retreats into the cabin, sketch pad in hand. After much thought, he theorizes that the stabilizers on the back of the craft (they look like tail fins) are too tall, and the extra height is what prevents Deep Flight from turning easily.

Enter the hacksaw. As his crew and onlookers draw a deep collective breath, Hawkes begins sawing off the tops of the stabilizers. National Geographic is filming for a documentary; there's more pressure here than 1,000 feet beneath the surface.

"It's like performing brain surgery with kitchen implements," he tells the group. "But that's what engineers do."

After surgery, Deep Flight is hoisted back into the water. Hawkes takes it down for a spin, and it moves easily, humming along in the water, the thrusters making the sound of a sewing machine at full throttle. The sub turns quickly, like a fish.

"Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" Hawkes says into the cameras documenting this test swim.

Before the day's over, he'll dance a jig on deck. After nine years of dreaming, designing, constructing, and scraping money together, the inventor finally has his answer: It works.

But proving Deep Flight's ocean prowess is not Hawkes' ultimate gratification. There is another reason he continues to spend so much time trying to fund and build this particular machine.

Back in his garage, Graham Hawkes is leaning against Deep Flight, spinning an enchanting tale about the dive off Cabo. At one point in the adventure, he says wistfully, he and Deep Flight danced the tango with a giant manta ray.

"I found one with a wingspan about twice [the size of] this thing," he says, patting Deep Flight, which is now back on its trailer. "I was moving as slow and gently as I could. It would let me get about 20 feet [away], and then veer off."

Hawkes begins to illustrate this relationship with his hands flat, coming at each other from a distance.

"It was behaving exactly as I was, kind of mimicking me. We had this kind of dance for an hour or so, getting closer and closer each time."

At this point, it's clear that Hawkes has left terra firma. He's back in the water with the ray. And before you know it, he's taken you with him.

"Finally, it came straight at me and didn't move -- kind of a game of chicken, I guess. The ray had control of the situation; it was his (or her) dance. I backed off. It wouldn't have hurt the fish or the sub, I don't think ... it just seemed like bad form. Anyway, I was looking at the underbelly of this thing as it floated over me. It was white underneath, and had probably a 16-foot wingspan.

"Just incredible."

Deep Flight 2 exists as a three-dimensional computer design. Although that design is based on principles proven to work by its predecessor, there are new aspects. Deep Flight 2 is a bigger, two-person craft, and it has vertical thrusters in the middle that allow it to hover around a work site. Although the body of its predecessor is made of a glass-epoxy compound, the new sub has a ceramic hull that is based on recently declassified Navy research into such materials. That hull will, of course, have to endure 8 tons of pressure per square inch at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But it is not engineering challenges that keep Hawkes from heading down there.

Simply put, Graham Hawkes has a money problem.
There are too many people already angling for the minimal funding devoted to ocean exploration. And for deep sea research, many believe that robot submersibles are both safer and cheaper to buy (though not to operate, since they require support from a mother ship) than manned craft.

But even though he has designed many of the remotely operated vehicles now used underwater, Hawkes feels manned and unmanned vehicles have their place undersea. After all, an unmanned vehicle could pass right by the greatest discovery of the century -- simply because it's programmed to look for something that's already known to exist.

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