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Aluminaut underwater in 1972 (NOAA/NURP)
Aluminaut underwater in 1972 (NOAA/NURP)
United States
Name: Aluminaut
Owner: Reynolds Metals Company
Operator: Reynolds Marine Services
Builder: General Dynamics Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut, USA
In service: 1964
Out of service: 1970
Homeport: Miami, Florida, USA
Status: Preserved as museum ship; Science Museum of Virginia; Richmond, VA, USA
General characteristics
Type: Deep-submergence vehicle (DSV)
Tonnage: 80 short tons (73 t)
Displacement: 80 short tons (73 t)
Length: 51 ft (16 m)
Beam: 8 ft 1 in (2.46 m)
Speed: 3 knots (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph)
Endurance: 32 hours
Test depth: 15,000 feet (4,600 m)
Capacity: 6,000 lb (2,700 kg) payload
Crew: 6-7 (3 crew, 3-4 scientists)

Aluminaut was built in 1964 and was the world's first aluminum submarine since the WWII Type 21. An experimental vessel, the 80-ton, 15.5 meter manned deep-ocean research submersible was built by Reynolds Metals Company, which was seeking to promote the utility of aluminum. Aluminaut was based in Miami, Florida, and was operated from 1964 to 1970 by Reynolds Submarine Services, doing contract work for the U.S. Navy and other organizations, including marine biologist Jacques Cousteau.

Aluminaut is best known for helping recover a lost unarmed U.S. atomic bomb in 1966 and recovering its smaller fellow deep-submergence vehicle, Alvin (DSV-2) in 1969, after Alvin had been lost and sank in the Atlantic Ocean the previous year. After retirement, Aluminaut was donated to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, where it is on permanent display.

1964: Aluminaut: the world's first aluminum submarine[edit]

Reynolds Metals was a pioneer in research and development of other products using aluminum, these included an aluminum transit bus and other aluminum motor vehicles.[1]

Reynolds Metals designed and built the Aluminaut as an experiment, the concept of an aluminum submarine was developed at Reynolds during World War II in 1942 by executive vice president Julian "Louis" Reynolds, a son of the founder. At 34, Louis Reynolds led the foil division, which accounted for 65% of the company's sales before the war.[2] Reynolds Metals played an active role in the U.S. war effort, but it was 20 years before the aluminum submarine was built.[3][4]

In 1964, Reynolds had the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut build the world's first aluminum submarine. The submersible was operated by subsidiary Reynolds Submarine Services Corporation, based in Miami, Florida. Compared to many deep-sea vessels, Aluminaut was large, it weighed 80 tons and could accommodate a crew of three and three to four scientists. It had four view ports, active and passive sonar, manipulators, side-scan sonar and could hold 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg) of payload.[5]

For flexibility, it was outfitted for many types of oceanographic and salvage missions. Time Magazine reported in September 1964 on the unique specifications, reporting that the vessel's 51-foot (16 m) hull consists of 11 forged cylinders. Aluminum's strength-to-weight ratio exceeds that of steel, so Aluminaut's 6.5 inches (170 mm) thick shell could withstand pressures of 7,500 lbf/in² (52 MPa) at the sub's 17,000 ft (5,200 m) maximum diving range.[3]

The Aluminaut was designed at Woods Hole Marine Station in Massachusetts. A full-scale wooden mock-up was built to engineer the interior spaces, the project was classified as top secret at that time.[citation needed] At that time it did not have a conning tower entry and it immediately flooded and sank.[citation needed] The tower entry was designed and added and in the first test turned the submarine upside down.[citation needed] It was thought at that time that the design was impractical and was almost scrapped.[citation needed]

A one-sixteenth scale model of the final design was built in 1960 and run through stability and pressure tests.[citation needed]

1966: Helping recover a lost unarmed atomic bomb[edit]

The recovered thermonuclear bomb was displayed by U.S. Navy officials on the fantail of the submarine rescue ship U.S.S. Petrel after it was located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain at a depth of 762 meters and recovered in April 1966

The Aluminaut soon became useful during an incident with potentially major implications, on January 17, 1966, a 1.45-megaton-of-TNT [Teller–Ulam design] thermonuclear bomb was lost in the Mediterranean Sea during a United States Air Force 1966 Palomares B-52 crash over Palomares, Spain.

Eight crew members were killed in the mid-air crash of a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 refueling plane, the crash dropped three thermonuclear bombs on the land, and one in the sea. Although the others were quickly located, the bomb which had fallen into the ocean could not be located promptly.[6]

The U.S. Navy responded to the coast off Spain with an 18-ship, 2,200-man recovery task force under Admiral William S. "Wild Bill" Guest. In addition to military ships, the civilian-crewed Aluminaut and deep-sea submersible Alvin (DSV-2) were both used to respond to this urgent situation as part of the task force, along with other specialized equipment. Once on site, Aluminaut and Alvin searched the ocean depths to locate and recover the submerged bomb, for eighty days the search went on, straining the U.S. relationship with Spain, and giving Soviet propagandists what Time magazine described as "a rich fallout of anti-American gibes".[7]

The bomb was found by Alvin resting nearly 910 meters (3000 ft) deep, and was raised intact on April 7, 1966.[7][8][9][10] Admiral Guest allowed it to be photographed by the news media, allowing the world at large its first peek at a thermonuclear bomb as it sat secured on the fantail of the 2,100-long-ton (2,100 t) submarine rescue ship USS Petrel.[7]

1969: Rescuing a fellow DSV[edit]

Although both were put into service in 1964, the smaller Alvin was to have a much longer life. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution continues to use Alvin 45 years later.[11] Yet Aluminaut proved vital to Alvin in 1969.

In October 1968, Alvin was being transported aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tender ship Lulu. Lulu was a vessel created from a pair of decommissioned U.S. Navy pontoon boats with a support structure. While Alvin was being lowered over the side of Lulu on 16 October 1968, two steel cables snapped with three crew members aboard and the hatch open. Situated between the pontoons with no deck underneath, Alvin hit the water and started to sink rapidly, the three crew members managed to escape, but Alvin sank in 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) of water.[12]

In September 1969, Aluminaut was used to secure lines and a net to the Alvin, which was located, intact, almost a mile beneath the surface.[13] Alvin was then hauled to the surface by USS Mizar. Lunches left aboard Alvin were found to be soggy but edible, a fact which was tested when a preserved cheese sandwich was nibbled upon by one of the crew, this incident led to a more comprehensive understanding that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying oxygen at depth aided preservation. Alvin required a major overhaul after the incident.[14]

Other missions[edit]

Aluminaut did other work for the U.S. Navy, recovering a 2,100-pound (950 kg) current array torpedo at the Navy's acoustic testing facility in the Bahamas. She helped make movies for Jacques Cousteau and Ivan Tors Studios. Depths up to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) were reached while surveying for the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office.[15]


The Aluminaut was retired in 1970. Subsequently, she was donated by Reynolds Metals Company to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. There the world's first aluminum submarine is on permanent static display but she is retained in a state of constant readiness should her unique capabilities be required once again.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alcoa, Inc. company history.
  2. ^ Time Magazine.
  3. ^ a b Time Magazine.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Aluminaut at SMV.
  6. ^ This Day in History, January 17th: The History Channel.
  7. ^ a b c "Untitled Time Archive article". 1966-04-15. Retrieved 2007-05-30. 
  8. ^ Palomares, Brook.
  9. ^ Classic Dive Books.
  10. ^ UK Divers.
  11. ^ "History of Alvin". Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. December 2014. Retrieved January 13, 2016. 
  12. ^ "Salvops 69", "A review of significant salvage operations conducted by U.S. Navy salvage forces and other salvage activities during 1969", pp. 1-18, Department of the Navy, Naval Ship Systems Command, Washington, D.C.
  13. ^ BBC.
  14. ^ WHOI.
  15. ^ Aluminaut, HNSA.

External links[edit]