Katie McDonald, Popular Mechanics
17 August 2015
Sweet smells deep beneath the ocean, and how air conditioners helped the U.S. outsmart the Soviets, and more, all on this week's podcast.
Last week the Navy introduced its newest submarine to the fleet–the 337-foot, 7,800-ton, $2-billion USS John Warner. Armed with 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as MK48 torpedoes, the submarine can launch underwater drones or teams of Navy SEALS without leaving a trace.
But other subs can do that too. What they can't do is stay underwater indefinitely. The John Warner's nuclear reactor battery makes its own air and drinking water and never needs to be charged, meaning the boat only surfaces to restock the fridge. Curious to see how the John Warner compares to submarines of the past, we spoke to Jim Christley, who served on submarines for 20 years and wrote history books so comprehensive that the Library of Congress gave him a shout out. Here are a few of the things that surprised us.
1. The first successful submarine attack looked a lot like jousting.
During the Civil War, the Confederate H.L. Hunley – a primitive submarine that resembled a metal cigar – sank the Union's USS Housatonic. The weapon the Hunley used was called a spar torpedo, a 40-foot long wooden pole topped with a percussion cap that exploded when rammed against an object. The spar worked. Too well. The Hunley sank along with the Housatonic.
2. Submarines often don't use pinging sonar like you hear in the movies.
You can't see deep underwater. That's one of the nice things about sneaking up on someone in a submarine. But what you can do is hear any noise it might make. Sonar was devised to listen for ships and submarines. When you just listen, it's called passive sonar. When you put a ping in the water and listen to the echo, it's called active sonar. If you're a submarine trying to find other submarines, it's best to just listen.
3. And they don't need periscopes anymore, either.
Periscopes have a problem: They are tubes with an optic lens made of glass. If the periscope breaks, the sub leaks.
One of the advantages of the Virginia-class submarines (submarines made since 2000) is the introduction of a photonics mast. Instead of reflecting an image back down to you, photonics masts raise cameras up, where they can look around and send whatever they see back to monitors on the boat. If the camera breaks, it won't risk sinking the ship.
4. Some submarines smell like Cinnabon.
If you're going to be closed up in a steel tube with 140 guys who may or may not be your friends, you have to have some perks. One of them is food – better food than you'll find if you were stationed elsewhere. The military spends more money on food on subs than it does on regular Navy ships. The cooks on board the submarines are specifically trained, and they're really, really good. There's nothing better in the world than the smell of hot sticky buns going through the submarine at midnight.
For more about the USS John Warner and a story on how air conditioners helped the U.S. outsmart the Soviets, download our new How Your World Works podcast: https://soundcloud.com/popular-mechanics-podcast/a-deep-dive-on-subs
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