The Floating Instrument Platform, or FLIP, is described as the only stable platform of its type in the world, having the ability to flip from a horizontal position to a vertical position while at sea.

Working on
the FLIPside

Researchers study currents
aboard a Navy vessel that can
go from horizontal to vertical at sea

By Gregg K. Kakesako

A team of scientists will spend the next six weeks studying deep-ocean tidal currents that could be a key to solving the world's global warming problem.

The scientists are working off the Navy's oldest and most unique research vessels -- the Floating Instrument Platform, or FLIP.

Retired Navy Capt. William Gaines, assistant directory of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's marine laboratory, described FLIP as "the only stable platform of its type in the world, having the unique ability to flip from the horizontal position to the vertical position while at sea."

The 350-foot barge, 300 feet of which are ballast tanks, is owned by the Navy but operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Marine Physical Laboratory at La Jolla, Calif.

Gaines said FLIP was designed like a submarine, but has no propulsion system of its own and had to be towed to its current research location 20 miles northwest of Oahu by the Navy fleet tug USNS Sioux.

Once on site, its eight ballast tanks were flooded, causing the platform's stern to rise, Gaines said, and FLIP is "flipped" into a vertical position, going from a draft of 10 feet to 300 feet.

That makes for some ingenious engineering feats in equipping its bridge, galley, crew quarters and scientific laboratory. Even its head, or bathroom, had to be constructed to operate in a vertical and horizontal position.

That is because once "flipped," the aft side of the barge becomes its floor.

Aboard the FLIP Sept. 7 in the latrine was retired Navy Capt. William Gaines. Since the ship is in the horizontal position, the shower is on the ceiling and one of the sinks is vertical. The toilet is hinged to swing when the ship goes vertical.

There are two sinks in the bathroom: one that operates in the vertical position and another in the horizontal configuration.

The commode, which can swivel, is located below a shower stall.

"There are not many homes where you can sit on the commode and have your head in the shower," Gaines said.

In the galley, the stove, refrigerator, work counters and storage lockers are held in place by trunnions so that as the barge rotates, the equipment always stays upright.

The FLIP's 16 bunks also rotate. "They are like hammocks," Gaines said. "They can swing, and once they get into a new position, they are locked in."

Electricity for the air compressors used to drive water out of the ballast tanks and other ship services is provided by two 150-kilowatt generators. There is also a 40-kilowatt auxiliary generator that provides power during the flipping operation. All are mounted on trunnions.

The research platform carries 15,000 gallons of fresh water, but also has the capacity to convert 400 gallons of sea water a day using a reverse osmosis freshwater maker.

It takes about 20 minutes to "flip" the research platform from the vertical to the horizontal position, Gaines said.

Robert Pinkel, chief scientist aboard the FLIP, said the research platform is the brainchild of World War II submariner Fred Spiess.

It was developed in the 1962 as part of the Navy's SUBROC program, a submarine weapons program. FLIP was constructed by Gunderson Brothers Engineering Co. in Portland, Ore., and launched June 22, 1962.

Gaines said the platform has "flipped" more than 300 times in supporting numerous scientific programs.

For the next six weeks, it will be anchored in 3,000 feet of water at the western approach to the Kauai channel, said Pinkel, a professor of oceanography at Scripps.

His team of three graduate students and four electrical and mechanical design engineers are midway through a five-year study investigating deep-water turbulence. The Hawaii Ocean Mixing Experiment is designed to study the circulation of the ocean near the Hawaiian ridge.

"Imagine the ocean as a layer cake, where the layer at the top is the lightest and denser at the bottom," said Pinkel, who has made four trips on FLIP in Hawaiian waters beginning in 1970.

"Hawaii is so unique and so perfect that we can take what we learn here and apply them to computer models of other areas in the Pacific," he added.

University of Washington researchers participating in this $16 million National Science Foundation study have learned that waves 300 to 1,000 feet high are traveling beneath the ocean surface along the 1,600-mile Hawaiian Ridge and breaking like surf on beaches. They believe energy from such "internal" waves along the ridge may affect distant ocean waters.

They hope to learn what causes 90 percent of the mixing of warm surface waters and cold deep waters. The mixing, in a subsurface layer known as the thermocline, is a key factor in global ocean circulation and forcing nutrients up from the deep as food for tiny surface plants.

The current phase of the project, which will run until Oct. 21, will involve up to 30 scientists from the University of Hawaii, Oregon State University and the University of Washington. The research vessel Wecoma, staffed by scientists from Oregon State University, and the Revell from Scripps will join the FLIP in compiling deep-water data.

Equipment on the FLIP will measure ocean density and the speed and velocity of the deep-water tides.

Scripps Marine Physical Laboratory

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