Saturday, August 22, 2015
What lies beneath: Amazing footage of the U.S. Navy's 'flying aircraft carrier' that sunk off the California cost in the 1930s
A team of specialists have used remotely operated underwater vehicles to explore the wreck of the USS Macon, a lighter-than-air rigid airship that was the Navy's last flying aircraft carrier, used in the 1930s.
The airship crashed off the coast of California eighty years ago when it was lost in a storm off of Port Sur, California, killing two crew members.
Now, a group of submersibles were able to piece together photographs they took of the wreck along with a 360-degree video of a biplane that was attached to the airship when it came down.
The port wing of a Sparrowhawk aircraft on the submerged wreck of the USS Macon in the Monterey Bay. The debris field of the Macon was located with the help of local fishermen in 1990
October 1933, the USS Macon in flight over Lower Manhattan
The wreck was surveyed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in February 1991, when sonar, video, and still camera data were collected and artifacts were recovered
In 2010 the wreckage site was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. The registry is the nation's list of cultural sites considered worth preserving and this footage was filmed earlier this week
The chance to visit the wreck which had lain on the seabed since the middle of last century also gives archaeologists and conservators the chance to analyse how older, wooden shipwrecks change in underwater environment.
The biplane that was found will also be used to determine how seawater affects aluminium, by taking measurements of corroded sections of the biplane's wing.
'We haven't quite figured out as a discipline how to best conserve the material, how those materials react with their environment and with other materials,' said Naval History and Heritage Command archaeologist Alexis Catsambis, to Archeology magazine.
'And so this is an opportunity to learn through the sample that we collect about the rate of degradation of certain aluminum alloys and hopefully how to best help preserve them.'
USS Macon Crew and the airship at Moffett Field, California, where the airship was based
The USS Macon, was built to serve as an airborne aircraft carrier. This picture was taken at NAS Sunnyvale in June 1932 and show a day when the public was allowed in to see the dirigible
In the presence of many special guests the head of the new American airship Macon was mounted. USS Macon was the sisiter airship of the USS Akron. Both were among the largest flying objects in the world in terms of length and volume in the early 1930s
The wreck site is deteriorating and NOAA has a responsibility to monitor and help preserve the site because it is in a National Marine Sanctuary
On Tuesday the expedition filmed the front section of the wreckage, where debris included the mooring mast, the water ballast system, fuel tanks, a desk, a chair, and a filing cabinet
The Macon, launched in March 1933, was operated by the U.S. Navy and served as a 'flying aircraft carrier,' designed to carry five biplanes for scouting and training.
The dirigible had been damaged in a previous incident in the mountains above Arizona.
It was returning to Mountain View, California in February 1935 when it ran into a storm off Point Sur.
Wind shear caused structural damage, puncturing gas cells and then a leak.
The damaged meant the 785-foot airship gently floated down into Monterey Bay off Point Sur in California, taking around 20 minutes to settle.
Riding high: The biplanes would hook onto the bottom of the airships before being released and flown off
Tuesday's morning operation by Nautilus mapped the lower extremity of the Macon site, which contains the aft end of the airship, including the Sparrowhawk biplanes seen here
Friday, August 21, 2015
But it could.
A long line of secretive Navy spy submarines, most recently a nuclear-powered behemoth named USS Jimmy Carter, have for decades infiltrated remote waters to gather intelligence on rival states' militaries, insurgents, and terrorists on behalf of the NSA and other agencies using a range of sophisticated devices, including special equipment for tapping undersea communications cables.
Before NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the agency's phone and internet monitoring programs targeting U.S. and European citizens, the mainstream press paid little attention to the elusive, subsurface warship. But following Snowden's disclosures in 2013, several publications including The Huffington Post and the German Der Spiegel speculated that the Jimmy Carter was aiding the NSA's surveillance of citizens' communications in the U.S. and Europe.
"It seems this same submarine," The Huffington Post claimed, "was pressed into service to spy on Europe."
At the Navy's request, Electric Boat inserted an extension in the middle of Jimmy Carter's hull that added 100 feet to its standard 350-foot length — plus nearly $1 billion to the baseline $2 billion price tag. Commander Christy Hagen, a Navy spokesperson, declined to comment on the warship’s modifications.
But Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Jimmy Carter's hull extension most likely contains a "moon well" — a floodable chamber to allow divers, robots, and machinery to move between the sub's interior and the water, retrieving objects off the seafloor or carrying monitoring devices and other surveillance equipment.
But underwater wiretapping is probably unnecessary. "I don't think you need to use Jimmy Carter to do that," Cote said. "It would be a waste of that asset."
It's far easier for the NSA to monitor Americans' communications on land, Cote pointed out in an interview, with the consent of phone and internet providers.
But it wasn't long ago that Jimmy Carter's predecessor subs were involved in undersea eavesdropping — against America's Cold War rivals. That espionage took place during a technologically simpler time, when Washington had fewer ways of listening in on communications.
The subs' secret missions, the subjects of repeated investigations by high-profile reporters including Seymour Hersh in The New York Times, were practically the stuff of fiction.
In 1968, the Pentagon deployed Halibut to the Pacific to search for the wreckage of a sunken Soviet submarine that would later be partially recovered by a CIA team aboard a purpose-built salvage ship. Trailing a four-mile long cable rigged with cameras, Halibut found the Soviet vessel in 16,000 feet of water after just three weeks.
The special subs placed on the cables clamp-like devices that recorded passing signals, giving Washington valuable insight into Soviet naval activities. In 1980, a former NSA employee named Ronald Pelton betrayed the subs' operations to the Soviets in exchange for around $35,000. Pelton was arrested in 1986, tried and convicted. He remains in federal prison.
The Soviets' discovery of the undersea wiretap alerted America's rivals, making such missions much more difficult. "People are now aware that that's a technological capability that we have — and that puts them on guard," Polmar says.
The disclosure, and new technology advances, has led to an apparent shift in the spy subs' tactics. When North Korea shelled a South Korean island base in 2010, Jimmy Carter reportedly surfaced nearby and launched a small, quiet drone spy plane to photograph the damage. Since then Jimmy Carter has undoubtedly stayed busy performing other surveillance missions and, in 2013, entered a roughly yearlong period of maintenance at a shipyard in Washington State.
Now that the submarine has returned to the fleet, it will surely resume its secret duties as America's main underwater spy. But the special sub probably won't be listening in on your phone and internet conversations. Too dangerous against military rivals and unnecessary for domestic surveillance, submarine wiretaps seem to have fallen out of favor.
You're still being spied on — just not by a submarine. Exactly what Jimmy Carter is doing is hard to say.
"I’m sure," Cote laughed, "it's up to no good."
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