Storied Research Platform is Retired
Scripps Oceanography’s 61-year-old FLIP towed to sea for the final time
The Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) was one of the most innovative oceanographic research tools ever invented. Over the course of its service life spanning more than 50 years, the baseball bat-shaped platform exemplified the ingenuity of scientists and engineers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
On Aug. 3, however, FLIP's distinguished career finished its final chapter when it was towed to a dismantling and recycling facility, six years after its last research voyage and three years after reviewers determined that the costs to renovate it could not be justified.
“R/P FLIP has existed for more than half the length of the institution’s entire history,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. “It was an engineering marvel constructed during an important phase of new technology for ocean exploration following World War II. The many discoveries from FLIP help set the stage for ongoing cutting-edge science to understand our ocean.”
Over the decades, FLIP became an example of innovation at the institution, with its unprecedented design helping to advance society’s understanding of ocean currents, ocean acoustics, air-sea interactions, marine mammals and more. It inspired millions of school-age children, routinely appearing in grade school textbooks used in schools throughout the U.S.
“In recent years, the combination of FLIP’s exceptional dynamic stability, its booms which allow for measurements untainted by flow distortion due to the platform’s structure, and its ability to deploy a diverse range of specialized laboratory instrumentation in the field revolutionized our understanding of the coupling between the ocean and the atmosphere,” said Scripps oceanographer Luc Lenain. “It also played a crucial role in advancing and validating new cutting-edge observational technologies such as instrumented autonomous surface vehicles, radar, and electro-optical based remote sensing of the environment – tools that are now routinely used in ocean field programs.”
Veteran Scripps physical oceanographer Rob Pinkel was among the researchers who had logged the most hours as a chief scientist on FLIP cruises, beginning in 1969 when he was a Scripps graduate student. Pinkel recalled that the platform’s origins came a decade before that, when the Space Race was in full force and the United States broadly supported exploratory science of all types.
“In the late 1950s, the National Research Council Committee on Oceanography convened a study of the capabilities required to dramatically advance ocean science,” Pinkel said. “Among the recommendations of the group was the creation of a special purpose research submersible capable of full ocean depth exploration and a manned spar buoy for upper ocean and precision measurements. Five years after this report, both (the submersible) Alvin and FLIP were entering operation.”
Launched in June 1962, R/P FLIP drew attention for decades from around the world owing to its unusual appearance and unique capability to “flip” from a horizontal position to a vertical orientation at sea. To scientists, that characteristic made it a singular tool for studying the oceans. FLIP maneuvered to its vertical position by filling its ballast tanks with water, causing all but the top 55 feet of its 355-foot total length to be submerged in the ocean. Oriented vertically, FLIP was supported well below the motion of the waves, giving FLIP its singular capability of remaining nearly motionless amid even violent ocean swells. This unique characteristic enabled the transformational science with which it became synonymous.
The platform was designed, built and operated by Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory (MPL), a laboratory that formed at the close of World War II as an offshoot of a University of California-managed effort that provided direct science support to the Navy during the war, and involved many from Scripps. MPL scientists Fred Spiess, Fred Fisher and Philip Rudnick, developed FLIP in the late 1950s. A veteran submariner and director of MPL, Spiess knew that access to the water column below the surface was prized among his fellow physical oceanographers but also that using submarines in research could be prohibitively expensive and elusive in the face of other Navy priorities.
“FLIP set the stage for thinking big about what could be done with technology to enable new scientific discoveries,” said current MPL Director Eric Terrill. “It was built in an era of risk-taking; a spirit that we try to embrace to this day and encourage in the next generation of seagoing scientists.”
FLIP was classified as a platform, rather than a vessel, because it had no propulsion of its own. It got to its destinations towed by seagoing tugs. Its stability and lack of engine noise made it an ideal tool for recording ocean acoustics and animal sounds, observing tidal forces, internal waves and small-scale turbulence. Hundreds of scientists from universities around the world used FLIP over the years, outfitting its hull with hydrophones, current monitors and other research instruments in port before deploying it.
Spiess and his fellow architects had not intended for science parties to live aboard the platform at first. Originally there were only quarters for crew members and scientists were expected to be transported from support vessels to which they were to return when their daily work was completed. Tom Golfinos, who served as officer-in-charge of FLIP for 29 years, said that idea was quickly abandoned when operators realized the hazards that come with boarding a motionless object from small motorboats that rose and sank with ocean swells.
Thus, FLIP was outfitted with amenities found on most research vessels but with a twist. All internal fixtures – toilets, sinks, bunk beds, dining tables in its galley and the stove/oven console in the galley’s center – all needed to be operable in orientations 90 degrees apart from each other. Many were fitted onto gimbals and some were duplicated in two orientations. What were floors when FLIP was horizontal became walls when it flipped to vertical. Those on board during the process received cards certifying that they had “flipped.”
“It was like being on land except in the middle of the ocean. It was just glorious,” said Scripps oceanographer John Hildebrand, who deployed FLIP to study marine mammal sounds greatly aided by FLIP’s own lack of noise. “There were things you could do with it that you couldn’t do any other way.”
FLIP crew needed to be uniquely prepared for the unconventional operation of FLIP, which required special skills and attention to detail. They also needed to have a certain amount of mettle during the process of flipping, Golfinos added. The full transition from horizontal to vertical orientation at sea took 30 minutes and 29 of those minutes passed by with little perceptible change. It was the final 49 gut-wrenching seconds of the flip when the transition rapidly sped up that Golfinos and his crew members had to learn to not panic, trusting that they had followed procedure correctly and that the platform would take on the right amount of ballast water to settle out in exactly the right position and orientation.
Robert Sparrock’s first visit to FLIP was in 1989 while studying ocean acoustics and climate change at Scripps. Today, as the program officer for Oceanographic Research Facilities at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), he said the farewell is bittersweet.
“FLIP was developed as an instrument to study acoustics to improve the Navy’s ability to defend against submarines but its value as a platform was to inspire,” Sparrock said. “Its ability to inspire remains as seen in the design of the French Polar POD; thus I’m confident the inspiration that is embodied in FLIP will endure.”
Over its career, FLIP was a key mission enabler for Basic and Applied Research programs in meteorology, oceanography, and ocean acoustics, said Tom Drake of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department.
“Whether investigating air/sea interaction, ocean mixing, boundary layer dynamics, or acoustic thermometry, FLIP’s unique properties and capabilities enabled the collection of exquisite datasets that served as the gold standard for numerous process studies and extensive model development, ultimately increasing our understanding of the maritime environment,” said Drake. “While FLIP is retiring, it will continue to pay dividends and make new contributions for ONR and the greater scientific community.”
Though there never were any dangers caused by crew error, one instance caused the crew to abandon FLIP for its own safety. In 1969, north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, ocean swells exceeding 80 feet knocked out power and necessitated a rescue with those on board having to abandon ship by jumping into the water where evacuation boats picked them up – a challenge because the distance down to the water varied wildly as the swells passed.
FLIP remained a subject of public and media curiosity well after its final research voyage. Numerous documentary and television crews had sought it out as an example of innovative engineering and unprecedented utility.
In the end, a pair of tugboats pushed FLIP away from its berth and out to sea as dusk fell. By chance, the submersible Alvin was also at Scripps’ Nimitz Marine Facility stowed on its support ship, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research vessel Atlantis, which had just docked after a brief cruise off the San Diego coast.
Scripps Oceanography officials have made arrangements for one of FLIP’s booms, crane-like arms of the platform from which were suspended research instruments, to be removed from it and attached to the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, where it will be used to deploy instruments the same way it did aboard FLIP, serving as an ongoing tribute to the venerable research platform and an inspiration for the kind of transformational innovation that has marked Scripps Oceanography over FLIP's 60-year service life.
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