Sometimes when a submarine goes wildly out of control, it sinks to the bottom. Sometimes when a sub goes wildly out of control, it go straight to the surface. When the USS Chopper lost control, it did both. At tremendous speed. Terrifyingly.
You'd be forgiven if you hadn't heard of the Chopper. It was one of 122 Balao-class diesel-electric submarines, which were a significant fighting component of United States naval power during World War II. Unfortunately for the Chopper, however, it was completed too late to actually see any action, and was quickly outclassed in the post-war era by nuclear-powered subs with new, innovative teardrop-shaped hulls.
For much of its life, the boat served as a simulated target for other ships before finally being struck from the Naval Register in 1971.
A notable, popular, and public submarine is also a submarine that isn't very good at its job, so information about much of the Chopper's Cold War operations is scarce. It engaged in a few patrols in the Mediterranean, the Philippines, off the coast of China, and in the Caribbean, but mostly thanks to the fact that the Cold War never really turned hot, there are no unusual stories of unusual happenings.
Except for one incident, off the coast of Cuba, in 1969, which led to its eventual decommissioning. Mostly because no one would ever want to get in it again, I imagine.
At 1:40 in the afternoon on February 11th of 1969, Chopper was participating in a training exercise with the destroyer USS Hopkins off the coast of Cuba. Everything seemed relatively normal, for a submarine. It was traveling at about eight knots, almost horizontal in the water with a one-degree down angle, and was cruising below the surface at 150 feet.
Like I said, fairly standard stuff for a submarine.
Two minutes later, everything went haywire. For reasons that were immediately unknown to the crew, the sub lost electrical power.
And for some reason, the dive planes at the rear of the sub immediately reverted a full-dive configuration. The sub was headed towards the bottom, and the crew was deaf, blind, and powerless to stop it.
The crew attempted to regain control within the first five seconds, according to this US Navy report into the incident. Unfortunately for them, their wild ride was just beginning.
Within 15 seconds of the loss of power, the Chopper was pointed downwards at a 15-degree angle. The helmsman in the conning tower desperately tried to call for help from the maneuvering room in the forward section of the submarine, but couldn't get through on the sound-powered phone.
The commanding officer immediately leapt to his feet in the Officer's Mess, and tried his best to make it to the control room. That simple task was becoming increasingly difficult, as the boat continued to pitch downwards like a drunken college student falling over a slight curb.
And if you think I'm joking about how difficult it was just to walk, just watch this video of a modern submarine, operating under normal conditions, at just 29 degrees:
Those submariners aren;t standing like they're in Michael Jackson's Moonwalker just for fun.
By 15 seconds after the loss of power in the USS Chopper, the submarine was stuck at a 45-degree down angle, making it easier to walk on the walls than it is to walk on the floors.
The officer on deck ordered a full emergency blow of the submarine's ballast tanks, desperate to get to the surface. And still, nothing happened. The Chopper was operating as if it had a mind of its own, and all it wanted to do was head straight for the bottom like a rocket.
30 seconds after that, the submarine sat, suspended in the water, nearly vertical. Anyone trying to move from one place to another was thrown from their feet. It became impossible to walk normally. Anything not strapped down or bolted to the floor went flying down the corridors. Chaos reigned.
To make matters worse, the Balao-class submarines were only rated to dive to a maximum of 400 feet. The Chopper sat in the water with its stern at 720 feet below the surface. The front of the boat was at over 1,000 feet below the surface.
About a minute after first losing electrical power, the sub stopped. It sat there, still at a horrifically vertical angle and pointed downwards, but it was no longer plunging towards the bottom and the inevitable crushing depths of the ocean.
And just as suddenly as everything all went to hell and seemed to fix itself, everything went to hell again.
Instead of being pointed straight down towards the bottom, the Chopper was now pointed nearly straight up, at an 83-degree angle. Everything that had happened a minute ago was now happening again, except in reverse. Everything that had gone flying through the corridors as now flying again, smacking people on the head, until it finally came to a rest at the back of the submarine.
The submarine wasn't so much as a submarine, as it was a rocket headed for the sky. Filled with cork.
It broke through the surface of the water, and came crashing down, propelled with so much momentum that it actually fell 200 feet below the waterline again, before finally bobbing up to the surface one last time where it came to rest.
Various parts of the sub were flooded and otherwise destroyed, but the crew managed to get the Chopper back to port under its own power.
And that was the last time the USS Chopper ever saw service. It had suffered so much structural damage that the Navy immediately decommissioned her.
The Navy later learned that the loss of power was caused by battery voltage fluctuations induced by different propulsion orders, but the damage was done.
No submariner has since gone for a wild ride like that one.
All photos credit US Navy