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Sea Stories: The Nose Cone


Gunboat1
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Sea Stories: The Nose Cone

 

The PEGASUS-class Guided Missile Hydrofoils were unique ships, built for extreme speed and maneuverability.  The ship literally flew on “cold steel wings” submerged in the water, with the hull well above the surface.   Rear foils were huge wings in a shallow “W” configuration.  The forward foil was an inverted T-shaped wing, with a lifting surface and a swiveling strut which acted as a canard rudder.  Both were made of precipitation hardened stainless steel.  The wing portion was bolted to the strut using numerous heavy and enormous steel bolts and nuts, which of course would have created significant hydrodynamic drag had they not been faired off. 

To make everything smooth and slippery, a cast aluminum nose cone was placed forward of the forward foil’s butt joint, and fastened to the foil with four through-bolted tangs.  The nose cone also contained the fathometer sensor, allowing us to determine water depth.

One night on patrol, the ship was flying along smoothly as always.  There was a noise and a sudden jolt, and the ship’s flight characteristics “felt different.”  And we lost the fathometer depth reading.  After a while, we determined that our normal speed of about 50 knots was drastically reduced.  We watched a while longer to confirm.  While still able to maintain foilborne flight, we were definitely going much slower than normal.  We surmised that we had possibly flown into a drifting fishing net and were dragging it through the water.  So we landed the ship and retracted the forward foil to have a look.  In the dim deck lighting, we could tell that there was nothing snagged on the forward foil, so we re-extended it and took off again.  Takeoff was slow and felt strange.  Flight was still awkward and slow.  So after a while, we landed, retracted and inspected again.  And this time, we saw that the entire nose cone was missing.  It had literally broken off in flight, and we were ramming the un-faired butt joint of the forward foil through the water as we flew.  This was an “A-HA!” moment.

Based upon our experience, our other five sister ships immediately inspected their nose cones and found that the areas around the fasteners all showed evidence of stress and wear from years of flight.  Normal landing procedure was to cut power and let the ship gradually stall into a soft landing.  Our ship’s CO at the time was a rash and immature LCDR (O-4) exercising the total authority of his first command without ever having been Executive Officer (second-in-command) of anything before.  Think of a sixteen-year-old being given the keys to a Ferrari, with no adult supervision.  He liked to do wild and unpredictable things, just for the thrill of it.  And he loved to “Rapid Land” the ship – cutting the throttle and then immediately setting full foil depth.  This resulted in a near-full speed nose-first dive into the sea, with a huge splash.  Such fun!  But it placed major stresses on the nose cone repeatedly.  And ours ultimately failed. 

Spare nose cones are not an inventory item, to say the least, and Boeing Aerospace’s Marine Division (which had made the ships) had been disbanded.  No molds remained to cast a new nose cone for us.  So the ship was ordered to proceed to a small shipyard in Pensacola, FL, which had not long before completed a periodic overhaul on us.  They had to special order enormously thick aluminum plate, chuck it in a huge bending press, and then machine several pieces which would fit together and replicate the shape of the original nose cone.  They were able to do this in a few weeks, and we returned to service with a shiny new nose.

When we left the yard, they presented us with a small wooden plaque, with a machined scale model of a nose cone attached to it.  Attached to the cone was a small stainless steel wire lanyard, locking it to the plaque “so we couldn’t lose this one.”

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I had the conn as this picture was taken.

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