Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Panoramic displays, waterfalls - and a sea story

Submarine sonar room
SDR technology and panoramic displays are relatively new to the hobby and their benefits are immediately obvious to anyone who's operated a radio so equipped.

An entire band - or several bands - can be seen at once. CW activity, digital, SSB - it's all there. Click on any signal and you hear it in the headphones or can zoom in on it. Zooming in, its sidebands and their characteristics can be discerned.

When such radios came to market (and became affordable!) I knew I had to have one. Even before
BQQ-5 sonar display
brand new companies like Flex explained it to me in their marketing descriptions, I knew what these displays and the unique way of tuning the band would allow. I'd known for over 20 years.

In 1985 I reported aboard USS Barb (SSN-596), a fast-attack submarine home-ported in beautiful San Diego, CA. The sub was deployed when I arrived so I was flown to its location in Subic Bay, Philippines to report aboard there. If you've heard any wild stories about the nightlife in Subic Bay, let me assure you - they're all true except that they have been toned down for delicate ears.

USS Barb, Hong Kong, 1985
After a few weeks in Subic, we got underway - my first time going to sea on a submarine, and of course, my first dive. Soon after leaving port we were several hundred feet below the surface of the South China Sea and I, as a newbie, was in awe of everything around me. Any misgivings about the tons of water above me were completely neutralized by the technology surrounding me.

A modern submarine is, in a nutshell, a mobile,
Gil the torpedoman - "warshot loaded"
watertight sensor. This appealed greatly to the ham that I already was (KA5BBL). Whatever ingredient or techno-bait it is that makes us engage in this radio hobby is there in droves in a submarine. They are weapons, of course, but they are also marvels of engineering and only a complete dullard (or a leftist, but I repeat myself) could fail to be impressed once inside one.

My longest time at sea was 72 days, 42 of which were spent at periscope depth. This was highly unusual for this small type of submarine as such time between ports is usually the realm of the big missile-carrying boomers. When we left port, our bow compartment passageway was lined with 5-gallon tins of flour, sugar and coffee. When we arrived at our next port, we'd been out of real food, ie square meals, for days and were eating whatever could be cobbled together by the cooks.

Andy shows off the UYK-7 computer
The reason for our lengthy time at sea was due to mechanical problems with our relief submarine. It was a much later Los Angeles class boat and we were happy as clams when it finally arrived.

During that 72 days I built a Heathkit HW-9 that I blogged about in the V1.0 version of this blog, now lost to history (or the Wayback machine?).

But I also spent a bit of time in the sonar room. I wasn't a sonar operator but enjoyed spending a bit of time in there, looking at the sonar displays. Unknown to me until then is that sonar is more about seeing activity rather than listening for it.

The movies fooled me - I thought a team of guys would be in there straining to hear a distant enemy and I wanted to take a turn with the headphones on, listening for what might lurk in the murky depths of the Arctic Ocean, the Gulf of Thailand or, can I say it? - the Sea of Okhotsk.

Instead, they look at various screens, each of which represented a different direction or a different section of the audio spectrum.
Planesmen driving the boat

From merely looking at a trace on the waterfall, seasoned sonar ops could tell if a signal was headphones-worthy. They knew if a trace represented "biologics" (usually shrimp), volcanic activity (wide ranging in the Pacific rim), a commercial tanker or a Kilo-class Soviet submarine cavitating while snorkeling.

Clicking and zooming on an interesting trace allowed them to tell if a ship's screw had 3 or 4 blades. And if one of those blades had a nick or other imperfection, they knew.

These days, when I look at traces on my Flex or RSPduo, I can tell if they're RTTY, SSB or CW, and click on whomever I may want to work. It's all very normal now but it sure was interesting getting here.
Per the comments below, IC1(SS) Danny Robnett provides the foreground to the battle flag of the original USS Barb (SS220) in the background (Danny, can you move your head a bit to your right. Your other right.):



  1. What rate were you? We usually had quite a collection of people who wanted to hang out in sonar and even sit on the stack for a while. I've only gone to sea on Q-5 boats, but in STS "A" school, we had older sonar systems to learn on. Shortly we commissioned the USS Baton Rouge, we had a one-on-one ASW exercise with a BQS-13 equipped 637 boat. The results were amazing. A fairly raw sonar gang on the 689 had no troubles detecting and tracking the 637, while they barely held sniffs of us now and then.

    The dimus traces you see on the screen give you a general idea about the characteristics of a noise source, but to really nail it down, you had to listen or even have the class operator take a look at it. Screw/blade on most surface craft was easy to turn count and you could tell the number of blades, the number of screws and based on things like cavitation frequency, tell the general size of the ship. Of course, we alway verified with all of the tools at our disposal, but having a good ear was essential to the job.

    When I became a ham in 2010, I was immediately drawn to SDR's and digital modes. Since too many hours sitting on the broadband stack and being on boats has screwed up my hearing, I have a hard time with voice modes, but do very well with digital modes.

    The past few years, I've been doing more building ham kits and futzing around with electronics than I have racking up entries in my logbook. I'm not much of a rag-chewer and I don't have a lot of interest in contesting, so I focus on the technical end of things.

    1. I was an ESM/Nav ET. Submerged I had a bit of free time as long as the SINS was running well and spent it hanging out in either Radio or Sonar. We were all one big group off the boat, doing a lot of motorcycle riding around San Diego & Ensenada - good ole days - so it was natural to hang out while underway as well, learning each other's jobs.

      After the Barb, I taught ET A School in Groton for three years, got out and started doing what I'm doing now - more radar stuff. Two years from retirement.

      Thanks for the comment...good reading.

      73 - John

  2. John:

    Great post! Very interesting!

    In 2004 at a veterans dinner I met Mr. Owen Williams who was a crewman on the first USS Barb (SS 220.) He served under Eugene Fluckey and was on a number of patrols with him. He had some very interesting stories to tell. He autographed a copy of Fluckey's book, "Thunder Below" for me. Mr. Williams is mentioned several times in the book. The book is really good. No one ever said that a sub couldn't sink a train.

    I've been on the USS Cobia (SS-245) numerous times. It's at the Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. My wife's family is from Manitowoc. They built 28 subs there for WWII. They had to side-launch them due to the location of the shipbuilder on the river. My wife's grandma and aunts told us stories of going to watch the launches. It was a big deal in town. After the war her grandpa started an auto parts store that was located just across the river from the shipyard. (Funny side note, he drove the Burma road during the war and when he returned he literally never drove again. Grandma always drove.)

    Back to radio...I've been enjoying my RSP-1A. "Seeing" radio is a lot of fun and adds a whole new aspect to the hobby. I've been watching your posts about the new devices with earnest. I've got a bad feeling this is going to cost me some money at some point! : )

    Thanks again for the great post and thanks for your service.



    1. Hello Tim,

      Well you made me look at Google maps - I never would have thought a sub could get to open ocean from Wisconsin but I see now that the St. Clair River may provide the way? Amazing!

      And of the SS220 Barb, we had the original battle flag from that boat hanging up in crews mess on Barb 596. I also have Adm. Fluckey's book and it is an incredible story. The SS220 Barb was the only submarine to have a freight train on their battle flag and that is a story in itself (of a commando raid on a Japanese installation by members of the ship's crew). Those guys had nerves of steel and really were the Greatest Generation.

      In the RSP1A I think you have the best bang-for-the-buck in these receivers. The parts I have coming totaled $30 and will add a great amount of capability to what these devices will do. Tracking shows them now in the US so hopefully I'll receive them this weekend.

      And speaking of the mail, thanks much for the circuit boards. I received them a couple days ago and am now researching the parts source with the greatest availability in one place. I don't know if I'll actually get around to it but I'm reading postings of others who have and it is inspirational.

      Best of health and thanks again,