Monday, March 26, 2012

Ship Shape

I find it a bit amusing that I'm continually tempted to break the rules of what this blog was meant to cover--namely the visual arts with a concentration on architecture--since I was the one who made up those rules in the first place. I think the subject of this post has obvious parallels, but it's still somewhat out in the margins. I recently went to visit the U.S.S. Intrepid Aircraft Carrier, permanently docked in the Hudson River.

Over the many years I've been writing, I've learned that a surprising number of people really just love to hear the word "no" come out of their mouths. It's at least equal to the number who enthusiastically say "yes," and far greater in number than those who say "no" with reluctance. Whenever I encounter a person, organization, or institution that is accommodating with their information and resources, I often feel a kind of camaraderie with them. Here is a person who is as proud of what they're doing as I am, is happy to share it, and it only serves to boost my own enthusiasm for the subject. This was what I encountered at the Intrepid.

I had inquired ahead of time as to whether there might be a person on their staff who is particularly knowledgeable about the naval architecture of the ship. I had only hoped to show up at the right time to join a tour already scheduled that such a person would be conducting. My first point of contact, the tour supervisor, was extremely welcoming and told me that the person I'd want to speak with was a gentleman by the name of John Lyon. The supervisor asked that I let him know when I'd be coming by so that he could give Mr. Lyon a heads-up. I had a good day to visit about a week later.

I had had the idea in my head that this was a site more or less operated by the U.S. Navy. I sort of expected employees there to be on-leave, off-duty, or retired Navy officers. Instead I found it is much more simply a museum. It took me longer to walk over to the river than I had predicted, so instead of first going on a tour, right away I told the ticket desk agent that I was there to see Mr. Lyon. He sold me my ticket and directed me to where Lyon would be waiting, upstairs on board the ship.

I don't know if Lyon was still on the clock (I certainly hope he was), or what other duties he was neglecting by speaking with me, if any. I'd have been happy for whatever information he might have been able to share in fifteen or thirty minutes. Instead, he talked with me for at least an hour, if not an hour and a half. I was so fascinated and learning so much that I kind of lost track of the time. Basically I was treated to a private, one-on-one, ninety-minute educational session with their most knowledgeable guide on this subject. I couldn't have been more grateful.

Perhaps ironically, considering the subject matter, Lyon's accent was from New Zealand. On the other hand, his nationality may contribute to a certain level of objectivity with his subject matter. It's possible that their regular tours are peppered with a little bit of nationalist propagandizing (and perhaps that's what their American visitors want and expect), but I'll not speculate one way or another. The normal Intrepid tours are described as concentrating on the lives of the men and women who served on the ship. Although that's no doubt just as fascinating, it wasn't the reason for my visit. Being a history lover, I don't particularly need facts and figures to have personalities attached for me to find them interesting.

I first explained to him that my knowledge is greatest in land-based architecture so he would know something about my background. Since I'm not a stranger to at least many of the fundamental principles of engineering, I hoped he wouldn't be scared to hit me with the serious technical stuff. Besides, I have the greatest epiphanies when I'm being intellectually challenged. I was excited to see that he'd brought schematic drawings to show me.

We started out discussing the history of aircraft carriers in general and how they came to be the preferred warship for the world's navies. He mentioned something quite interesting about why the carriers were so crucial in World War II. It had nothing to do with Europe. It was because of Japan. Britain had not been defeated by the time the United States entered the war. The British still had plenty of airfields from which to launch air attacks on Germany or Italy. Japan had already been at war for years and years before their attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan had locked down pretty much all the islands in the western Pacific: Micronesia, Mariana, Guam, The Philippines. This meant that there would be nowhere for U.S. planes to land for maintenance or refueling after traversing the long stretch of ocean from Hawaii. To wage war in Asia, essentially the United States needed floating airports.

The most powerful Japanese guns were on the battleship Yamato. The Yamato's biggest guns could hit a target around twenty-five miles away (40km). The fighter planes on aircraft carriers, in contrast, had a combat radius of around 400-500 miles (640-805km). In other words, the fighter planes could reach and attack battleships well before those battleships could ever be a threat to the aircraft carrier. The carriers are typically the centerpiece in "carrier battle group" of warships, including battleships to defend it and cruisers that circle around the perimeter.

Intrepid is in the Essex Class of carriers, named for the first of them, the USS Essex, launched in 1942. The Essex Class evolved from the design of its predecessor, the Yorktown Class. It's probably inaccurate to attempt to attribute the design of Intrepid to any one person. However, an Admiral James S. Russell may have been more heavily involved with its design than others on the Navy design team. Some sources say 1940, but I'm going to trust that Lyon knows his business. According to him, they were ordered in 1939. Intrepid was built at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and launched in 1943. I'm not sure why, but I was sort of surprised that the ship is so old. I guess I sort of expected it to have been built in the mid-1970s or something. Fully loaded, it displaces around 36,000 tons of water. At 872-feet long (266m), if stood on its end, it would be around the same size as the Chrysler Building. We spent the majority of my remaining time there discussing the design of the ship.

Exploring this branch of architecture was extremely illuminating for me, and I suspect the experience will only serve to enhance my readings of land-based architecture. All the elements are essentially the same, architecturally speaking, but they're completely shifted around. There's a sense of balance, but it's literal balance rather than compositional. There's structure and enclosure, but their arrangement and purpose are entirely different. As far as the concert halls that I have studied at such great length, there's the concern for the movement of waves in a medium. With the Intrepid, it's the hydrodynamics of water around the hull rather than the acoustic containment of sound waves in the air. Hydrodynamics give rise to the overall profile of the structure, rather than to the forms of its interior. It's like architecture spoken in a different language. Since I've broached the subject, here's a fascinating video illustrating my main point of reference:

Culturally speaking, I don't think it can be overemphasized what enormous impact WWII had on every aspect of life in the United States once it was over. Every aspect of the capitalist production and consumption cycle and the
way consumers approached material objects would be entirely transformed as a result of the war. Automobiles are a great example because while the stylistic changes were at times merely symbolic and in most cases driven forward by planned obsolescence, the evolutions in engineering and mechanical innovations were so radical that they couldn't help but strongly affect matters of design. The entire nature of the relationship between automobiles and their drivers changed from the 1930s to the 1950s, as a result of industrial design and engineering influenced by the war.

Much the same could be seen in architecture. It's relevant to note that it was a $60-million military housing project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee that helped to make the mostly mid-sized firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill such a colossus. I've already discussed how wartime building processes influenced Levittown. Of course new suburban communities were built into the form of traditionalist clich├ęs, but the processes used to build them would have been so significantly different after the war that they'd produce a slightly but noticeably altered version of the homestead caricature. The transformation of the skyscraper form from prewar to post-war--from brick and stone to steel and glass--is impossible to ignore. One might be inclined to suggest that the enormous output of the steel industry during wartime had to be channeled somewhere in peacetime or risk totally falling into economic chaos. Hence, the very prevalence of the steel and glass skyscraper could be said on some level or another to be a result of the United States' involvement in the war.

It may be argued that the primary goal of a work of land-based architecture is to protect its occupants. Mostly this concerns temperature, weather, and usually some degree of privacy or another. One might add that it should stay standing as long as realistically possible, but the main reason for this is that a structurally unsound building is dangerous for its occupants. Furthermore, if we include here the design of tents and other temporary housing, we see that structural permanence is not only a secondary consideration, it can even be undesirable in some cases. In the design of the Intrepid, in contrast, we discover the primary goal is to keep the structure standing. In other words, everything is designed to keep the vessel afloat and operational, even at the expense of its occupants, if necessary.

Ultimately you want everything safe, the ship and all of its contents. A lot of design decisions are not going give mutually exclusive results. Many others, however, require asking a serious either/or question: do you protect the crew at the expense of the ship's integrity, or do you protect the ship even though it may threaten the lives of crew members? The second choice seems heartless at first glance, but it really isn't if you think about it. If the ship is hit by a weapon, some people are likely to be (fatally) wounded. But if the ship itself is still viable, the remaining crew have the chance to survive. If the ship sinks, all bets are off. If it sinks, you'll likely lose the entire crew, or at least the great majority of them. Lyon repeated this principle a number of times. It wasn't for the sake of being redundant. It truly did explain a great number of things about the way the aircraft carriers were built.

Every measure was taken to protect, above all else, the inner core of chambers containing the boilers and the steam turbines they powered, at the very bottom of the ship. Everything around and above this core was more or less expendable.

These diagrams are the general Essex design, not specifically Intrepid's.

The core is divided into fifteen impermeable, separate chambers. From bow to stern: chain lockers, incendiaries, fore gasoline tank, fuel oil, magazines, fore auxiliary machine room, two fore boiler rooms, fore turbine room, two aft boiler rooms, aft turbine room, aft auxiliary machine room, aft gasoline tank, steering room. None of these rooms can be accessed from the adjacent ones. Instead, one has to climb a ladder several decks up through tubes, then climb back down a different ladder. If the fore tank explodes, you might lose the first two boilers also, but the fire will be as isolated as possible to only one or two chambers. More than likely you'll still have the two aft boilers and two aft turbines perfectly operational. It was truly a stroke of genius to locate some of the boilers and some of the turbines in completely different parts of the ship from the others.

Surrounding this core are layers of chambers, two on the bottom and four on both sides. The two outermost chambers are filled with fuel oil, which I was surprised to learn is not terribly combustible. The inside ones are left empty. Even if a torpedo or other explosive penetrates the outermost chambers, the ship will remain viable.

The next deck up from the core, the fourth deck, is also divided into impermeable chambers that can only be accessed from the third deck above it. Even if the fourth deck is immersed in flame, crew can still escape the boiler and turbine chambers through the tubes. The second and third decks containing crew quarters are more open, but are sealed up during battle. In a battle, the crew goes on lockdown; every crew member has her or his station where s/he must remain throughout the fight, and every hatch is closed and locked. It's forbidden for any of these to be opened until the battle is over and the all-clear is sounded. All these measures are taken to prevent the possibility of fires or explosions spreading from one part of the ship to another. An isolated fire may claim a lot of lives, but it won't threaten the survival of the ship as a whole.

The second deck is the hangar deck. Between the second and third decks is a floor of armor plating around two-and-a-half inches thick (6.3cm). Everything above that is relatively lightweight and therefore provides very little protection. The flight deck is, a little surprisingly, made of wooden planks about two-inches thick. Although the wooden deck is easier to repair in an emergency, at first I found this a bit confusing. It seemed much more logical to me to have the hangar protected by the armor above it, rather than locating the armor underneath where all this valuable aircraft is stored. Basically, if a bomb hits the top deck, it's going to blast right through it. You're going to lose a lot of the planes in that hangar as a result. But there are a few reasons for this.

One reason is to keep the center of gravity lower. I'm sure these ships are very seldom at risk of capsizing. One still has to take precautions for terribly rough seas and whatever might occur after the ship has sustained heavy damage. The armor plating itself is obviously quite heavy, but beyond that is all the many tons of steel girders that would be required to build it up another deck higher. 

Of much more concern are the elevators that take planes from the hangar up to the flight deck. The elevators are one of the most vulnerable parts of an aircraft carrier, because when lowered, they allowed bombs and kamikaze bombers to more easily and directly enter the hangar deck. They could also be damaged and rendered inoperable in their lowered position during battle, creating a semi-permanent Achilles Heel. As an improvement over the Yorktown carriers, Intrepid has an external lift which cantilevers out over its port side, so that planes could be brought up without lowering the central elevators and putting the hangar at as much risk. Presumably this doesn't preclude completely the need to use the central elevators. In the 1950s, an outboard lift on the starboard side replaced another of the central elevators. The last thing you want is enormous gaping holes in the armored deck, so the aircraft is stored on top of it. The armor has very few openings, and they're kept extremely small.

When the first aircraft carriers were put into use, the airplanes were the small, lightweight prop planes that didn't need much speed or runway length to get off the ground. In fact, they could lift off at around eighty miles per hour (128kph).
Lyon explained that they would always turn the ship to head into the wind, both for take-offs and for landings. Assuming the ship would be traveling at the equivalent of thirty miles per hour into a twenty mile-per-hour headwind, the planes would only need to achieve around thirty miles per hour relative to the deck to get airborne. The planes used during WWII were far heavier, especially when they switched to jet engines. This required catapults to shoot the planes off the carriers.

Intrepid's original flight deck was one long runway that matched the long axis of the ship. As many readers will no doubt be aware, a plane landing on this abbreviated runway is caught--or "trapped"--by a cable on the deck. The cable is rigged to an arresting engine, basically a giant hydraulic cylinder, so it can catch and stop the incoming planes at a short distance.

During a busy landing session, there could be recently-landed planes still at the bow end of the flight deck. This means that if an incoming plane misses the cable, it's going to careen right into those other planes, destroying all of them and likely killing a few people. In response to this problem, a later innovation was to turn the landing runway at an angle facing off the port side at about the midpoint of the ship. The pilot lands at full throttle, and if the plane misses the trap, it flies right back off the end of the runway, ascends again, and comes around for another attempt. Here's a great video by Golden Zah showing a number of successful and unsuccessful traps: 

While looking at one of the scale models, I was intrigued by how it was painted. I asked Mr. Lyon if that had been the original paint scheme, and I'm glad that I did. At one point, it was painted with a very peculiar geometric pattern in black and various shades of gray. He said it was designed to confuse enemy ships trying to identify its type. In profile, many of the ships look somewhat similar from very far away. But if you can't tell what type of ship it is, then you don't know what its length might be. If you don't know how large the ship is, then you also can't tell how far away it is. If you don't know how far away it is, it's very difficult to aim a weapon at it.

Intrepid did sustain somewhat heavy damage. During its first battle at the Marshall Islands, a torpedo hit the stern. The rudder was locked into a turn, so Intrepid limped back to Pearl Harbor running only its port side engines to counteract the stuck rudder. A couple of days later wind got so strong that it turned the ship back around to face Tokyo. Captain Thomas Sprague, in command at the time, said, "Right then I wasn't interested in going in that direction." The crew fashioned a makeshift sail at the bow of the ship to help keep it on course for home. Twenty-six Essex Class carriers were ordered, twenty-four of them were completed and launched, and not a single one of them sank.

As much as I was enjoying all the great information Mr. Lyon had to share, we'd been speaking for a long time, and he needed to leave. Much more and I probably would have been exhausted, as well. I asked him if there were anything else he recommended that I look at in the short time I had before the museum closed for the evening. He said I should climb up a staircase off to the side where some control, operations, and navigation rooms could be found, and then continue on up into the bridge.

The operations rooms were really quite spooky. I don't think many visitors realize they're there or that they can be accessed by the general public. I was the only person in this entire section of the ship. The light was dim. Everything looks almost exactly as it did in 1943, with perhaps a few trappings here and there that were added until Intrepid was decommissioned in 1974. Recordings on a loop of haunting, scratchy radio transmissions echo through the metal corridors. Then there were the rumblings of some distant, unidentifiable machinery. I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd spotted a ghost. Lyon said he'd not heard any good ghost stories on Intrepid, but he also admitted to being a skeptic.

The bridge was absolutely fantastic. To stand at the helm of such an enormous vessel is quite an experience (for anyone with an imagination), even if it isn't traveling anywhere. The rather odd thing you'll notice here is that, when you're standing at the main controls, you can barely see anything at all in front of you. The only view out is through that tiny porthole, and then there's a second window in front of that. I assume a ship this large can't really be properly steered simply by looking out the windshield and turning the steering wheel.

In a way, it's a shame the ship faces Manhattan rather than the river. Turned around, it might be easier to imagine you're headed out to sea.

Everything was all shiny brass, clearly polished regularly, and looked very much 1940s and so cool. I asked the attendant up there where the ignition was to start 'er up, which I thought was very, very funny and clever. Evidently I was the 197th person to ask that exact same question since she'd been sitting there. How she resists the urge to roll her eyes every time she hears it I have no idea.

She encouraged me to speak into the communication tubes to see if anyone would answer. I did, and I don't remember what I said, but it was something in mangled faux-military Navy-speak that probably amused me more than anyone who might have been listening. No one answered my orders.

I had a little more time to walk around the flight deck and look at the various aircraft. At the very foremost end of the deck is the holy-crap-that's-awesome 1962 Lockheed A-12 Blackbird. Its frame is made of titanium and it has a top speed of 2269 miles per hour (3651kph). I can't even begin to imagine how much the government spent making this thing. At that point the museum closed, attendants were aggressively ushering visitors out, and I was quickly losing sunlight, anyway. So I headed for home. At some point, I'll really need to go back to see the Concorde (I never got the chance to fly in one), and the USS Growler Submarine they have there.

All text and current Intrepid Museum photos ©2012, Ryan Witte. All archival images presumed to be in the public domain.

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