On May 6, 1986, three US Navy Sturgeon class nuclear-powered attack submarines (USS Ray [SSN-653], homeported in Charleston, SC; USS Archerfish [SSN-678], homeported in Groton, CT; and USS Hawkbill [SSN-666], homeported in Pearl Harbor, HI) rendezvoused and surfaced together at the geographic North Pole. The event occurred while the submarines were participating in Arctic Ocean operations known as “ICEX 1-86”. The mission of the submarines was to collect scientific data and test submarine force readiness under arctic conditions without logistics base support. The operation included experiments to determine how torpedoes, sonar and other anti-submarine warfare gear operates in frigid temperatures, and involved locating underwater currents to determine where cracks in the ice may develop through which missiles can be launched without requiring a submarine to surface and expose its position. Newspapers reported Navy officials acknowledged that disclosure of the operation was intended to signal to the Soviets publicly that the US was boosting its attack submarine presence in the Arctic in response to heavier concentrations of Soviet subs there.
Is surfacing through the ice cap at the North Pole dangerous for submarines?
‘Only if you screw up and surface through very thick ice (or fail to break through), but even then, the most you’d get is damage to any topside fairings, and potentially, any GRP fixtures. During our historic North Pole mission in 1986, before reaching the Pole we’d surfaced several times prior, twice specifically to deal with Freon leaks we’d been dealing with before getting underway. Unfortunately, we were forced to leave before all of the leaks were found and fixed in order to meet our Mission Schedule Requirements (we were one of three Submarines working together). We kept a close eye on Freon levels, ventilating as required while we were still in open water transiting to the ice pack. Of course, once we made the transition from open ocean to under-ice operations, the problem became more serious, ultimately needing us to find a thin spot in the ice twice to Surface & Ventilate in order to remove the toxic levels of Freon that had built up.
‘During one surface, we drifted into thick ice at the last second and wound up with a lot of topside damage, but not to the point where it was severe enough to force us back into port. We were pretty well prepared, and the ice at the North Pole was only about 6″ thick. Remember that a boat searches first for thin ice (a Polynya) using Under-Ice Sonar (essentially a set of topside transducers that ping up and forward – instead of down) to surface through.’
‘The ice at the Geographic North Pole isn’t always very thick, though if you look at the aerial photos below you can distinguish the heavy, thick pack ice from the relatively thin ice areas. The Polar Ice Pack is in constant motion; high winds and temperature fluctuations are always causing the ice to shift and break apart, causing open water areas (Polynyas) to form, which then rapidly freeze back over due to the extreme cold (as cold as -60°F), so it doesn’t take long for the open water to refreeze in those conditions. Polynyas freeze over very quickly, however, but a Polynya is what we look for when searching for a spot to surface.
‘Once Sonar has found a potentially good surfacing spot, the boat will hover (station-keeping maneuver), then slowly rise until the top of the sail (fairwater) is resting against the ice. After that, enough HP air is put into the ballast tanks to give the boat enough positive buoyancy to eventually break through the ice. Boats that still have Fairwater Dive Planes will have them manually rotated to a 90-degree Vertical position during hovering and before ascending. Failure to rotate and lock the Fairwater Planes in Vertical Configuration can result in the Planes being sheared off if the surfacing boat hits thick ice.’
‘Again, when we surfaced at the Pole in 1986, the ice was only a few inches thick; we’d found a huge Polynya, which was good because we were making the first 3-Submarine rendezvous at the Geographic North Pole in history. Given the 3 crews, we also set a record for the most people at the Pole as well. Here are some Official Navy photos taken from an ANG C-130 from Thule AFB, flown up with photographers.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy via John Jones
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