Many people may not realize that Wyoming, a dry, landlocked state thousands miles away from the nearest ocean, is home to a bonafide submarine expert.
He would be Bondurant resident Bill Winney, a former U.S. Navy submarine officer and commander who had a long and distinguished career serving in the watery depths for 21 years.
By the end of his career, he had advanced to the position of Strategic Programs Head for the Navy's Strategic Ballistic Missile programs at The Pentagon.
There’s probably no one in Wyoming more knowledgeable about the inherent risks of serving long stretches of times submarines than Winney.
Brush With Death
Winney had his own experience with a submarine disaster when an electrical fire broke out while he was the commanding officer of the USS Ben Franklin.
To make the situation worse, the crew was still in training mode, practicing and flexing their muscles at sea before deployment.
Despite the danger of the situation, Winney said he and his crew stayed calm because of their past training.
“Of course, our adrenaline was up, and our focus on what needed to be done was sharper than during a drill,” Winney said. “I don't think I slowed down from the adrenaline high for some six hours even as the fire was out in minutes.”
Winney said it’s the duty of a commanding officer to train the crew, a responsibility that requires careful thought in predicting what might come up, then coordination when implementing a simulation of casualties that is as realistic as possible.
He said this allows the crew to see what may happen and respond to it, followed by careful monitoring so errors can be identified and corrected.
“That is no small task,” he said.
In another potentially risky situation, the sub provided disaster support to those impacted by Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989. The massive storm passed right over the ship, causing the vessel to tip and turn 400 feet below the surface.
“For reference, that was double the rolls at depth that I had seen in a career for that depth, and I had been in (under) some nasty winter North Atlantic storms,” Winney said.
Winney said his experience tells him a flawed design and cutting costs were likely reasons for the Titan submersible disaster in the Atlantic Ocean that killed all five people on board and dominated headlines across the globe.
The Titan, a tourist submersible operated by the private company OceanGate, lost communication with the Polar Prince while descending to the site of the wreck of the Titanic on the morning of June 18. It was later determined the vessel most likely imploded, killing everyone instantly.
Winney was chief engineer on a nuclear submarine and later was a commanding officer of a large submarine maintenance and repair ship in the Navy.
The founder and chief executive of OceanGate, Stockton Rush, someone The New York Times described as wanting to be remembered for the rules he broke, was one of the five aboard the Titan.
In hindsight, Winney said what happened to the Titan, while sensational, isn’t surprising.
“The guy that ran the company liked to cut corners,” Winney said. “He would take risks when he would assemble something. It costs money to make sure you don’t cut corners.”
Winney said there’s always compromise involved when trying to find the perfect mix of weight and strength in submarine design.
“He (Rush) had to build a submersible that he could ship to the dive site, launch and recover, and otherwise handle,” Winney said. “He had to be trading off weight vs. submergence capability for whatever dive sites he was considering.”
Winney said he would never get inside a tourism-based submarine because of the risks involved, but thinks the industry can be pursued safely based on proven measures implemented in the Navy.
“It can be done, but it costs money. It costs real money,” he said.
In 2002, Winney led an effort to investigate the USS Dolphin, a diesel electric research submarine that began taking on water off the coast of San Diego.
Luckily, the submarine wasn’t fully submerged when it started flooding and all of the crew were able to escape.
Winney said it was still an extremely serious event as the ship was within a few thousand pounds of losing buoyancy, which would have led to it submerged stuck on the ocean floor.
Winney and his crew determined that a special collar placed in the ship’s hatchway jammed and a side hatch on the sail of the submarine got loose, causing water to flood in through a side door.
“It just started getting in and they couldn’t stop it,” Winney said.
The submarine was later fixed and used again.
One of the worst submarine disasters of all time was the USS Thresher, which in 1963 sank during deep-diving tests, killing all 129 crew members and shipyard personnel onboard.
Winney said in this instance, the outdated technology developed for World War II submarines had not caught up with the deep-diving capability of the Thresher.
Investigators found the Thresher probably suffered the failure of a salt-water piping system joint and flooded.
“When you’re down at those kinds of depths, if you get flooding, you’re talking tons per second, even from like a half-inch hole,” he said. “You have to be ready to do some things.”
Winney said one of the results of this disaster was requiring that piping exposed to sea pressure has to be welded and has to be 100% non-destructively tested.
He said the Thresher incident instilled a sense of meticulous safety precautions in the Navy.
“That’s written in blood,” Winney said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.