The Hughes Glomar Explorer
By Mark Nuccio
Howard Hughes - His name evokes thoughts of adventure, a fortune worth billions, oil, aviation, blockbuster movies, and, toward the end of his life, reclusiveness that emulated insanity. But not all of his life is what it seemed. Mystery was part of Howard Hughes public persona and it certainly surrounded one of the most secretive ships ever built, the Hughes Glomar Explorer.
The story of the Glomar Explorer started with the sinking of the Russian submarine K-129 on March 8, 1968 during the Cold War. Today, even the coordinates of the sinking are suspect, placing it approx. 1560 miles NW of Hawaii. The United States became aware of the sinking through use of a large network of “hydrophones’’ which are part of the US Navy’s Strategic Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). The Navy recorded that the Soviets had multiple submarines in the area using sonar “pings’’ to search the seabed. This unusual Soviet deployment and their frantic like cryptic communications were interpreted as a search mission for a lost submarine. Analysis of the hydrophone sound surveillance proved the theory.
On July 1968, USS HAILBUT, a submarine capable of dropping a camera tethered to a cable to the ocean floor, was deployed from Pearl Harbor. The wreck was located after three weeks of visual search. Several weeks were then spent taking over 20,000 detailed photos of all aspects of K-129. A 10 foot wide hole had been blown in the sub’s hull right behind the conning tower. Analysts speculated she had suffered a catastrophic explosion while charging her batteries.
The US government became fixated on the possibility of recovering K-129 (also at times identified as hull 722). The CIA became involved and began to study ways of secretly recovering the K-129 which most likely contained vast amounts of technology and top secret information such as Russian Navy code books, protocols of operation, and nuclear ballistic missile launching capabilities.
K-129 was a 3000 ton Golf II class, nuclear armed, diesel –electric powered, with a crew of 98 commissioned in 1960 and was part of the Soviet Pacific fleet. She was capable of carrying ballistic missiles and state of the art torpedoes. At the time of her sinking she was carrying three SS-N-4 Sark nuclear missiles capable of hitting the west coast of the United States. The Soviets scrambled to find its missing sub which was last recorded as operating far from its official ordered area of operation. The Russians seemed baffled and this has never been officially addressed by them. A theory was posed that K-129 had gone “Rogue”. This possible twist later became the basis of the book and movie “The Hunt for Red October”.
The interest in recovering K-129 was championed by both the Nixon administration and the CIA. Nixon appointed U.S. Navel academy graduate and WW2 submarine officer Ernest “Zeke” Zellmer as his deputy in charge of the project to be called “Project Azorian”. This new top secrete task force and the CIA explored options and decided to contact Howard Hughes whose inventiveness was imperative to find a way to recover the K-129 from a depth of 3.0 Miles (16,000 ft.) without being detected by the Soviets. This was an awesome task but Howard Hughes was more than up to it.
Hughes had a history of experimenting and building state of the art aircraft for both military and commercial use. During WW2 he built the Hughes H4 Hercules Spruce Goose under a government contract. It was the largest flying transport boat of its time at 319 ft. long and a wingspan of 310 ft. It was capable of transporting an entire military division with its equipment into battle. The government required that it be built of “non strategic materials’’ meaning no “essential metals’’ which were needed to build tanks, trucks, ships, fighter and bomber planes, and munitions. So Hughes cleverly built it of spruce. People swore it would never fly. By the time the first prototype was completed, WW II had ended and no others were built. Hughes, tired of hearing that his giant transport plane could not fly, took the challenge and flew himself only once. Today it is in a California museum.
Hughes was obsessed with secrecy. He controlled Global Marine Development Inc., an undersea exploration company, which would provide good cover for the operation.
Once briefed on the K-129, Hughes suggested building a ship that would contain a diving barge with large grasping arms that could be dropped down to the deep sunken sub, scoop it up, and then raise it to the surface into a secret compartment that opened under the vessel evading Soviet detection of the salvage operation. This vessel was to be named the “Hughes Glomar Explorer”.
The newly designed vessel would masquerade as an experimental deep sea mining ship exploring ways to mine manganese from the deepest Pacific regions. No one would be the wiser since Hughes had built part of his fortune with drilling bits, oil exploration and mineral exploitation.
The CIA contracted the Summa Corp (a subsidiary of the Hughes Tool Company) and Global Marine; by 1972 the keel was set on the Hughes Glomar Explorer. She was built in Chester, PA by the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. In today’s dollars she cost 1.7 billion. She was 619 ft. long and had a beam of 116 ft. The Glomar Explorer displaced 50,000 tons and had a draft of 38 ft. Her propulsion was 5x- Nordic 16 cylinder diesel engines and her cruising speed was 10 knots. A key problem was to keep the ship stationary above the wreck and new stability equipment was developed by Global Marine. The ship was completed in July 1973 and set sail for California for additional equipment and sea trials. Being too wide for the Panama Canal, she rounded Cape Horn arriving in September.
Under the “Freedom of Information Act” we now know the code name for this recovery attempt was “Project Azorian”. Glomar Exlplorer sailed on June 20, 1974, and arrived at the site of K-129 on July 4th then commencing operations. Her diving barge with mechanical “claw” was deployed from the secret underhull compartment. While the month long operations were taking place, the site was visited by two Russian vessels with helicopter support. The Soviets obviously suspected the “manganese mining” operation was fraudulent. Soviet authorities decided not to interfere because they were betting on what they saw as a futile adventure considering the K-129 was 16,000 ft. deep. The entire operation was filmed by the CIA, but remains classified. Only the portion showing the memorial service for 6 recovered Soviet seamen has been released.
Was the Hughes Glomar Explorer up to the task? Was “Project Azorian” a success? These are impossible questions to answer. Even under the Freedom of Information Act much of the details have been deleted from the documents as “Top Secret” making it impossible to reach finite conclusions. Below are three scenarios that may or may not be the conclusion. The choice is yours and your guess is as good as mine.
The first version is that the project was mechanically compromised and nothing was retrieved.
The second version is that it was partially successful as most of the sub was not recovered since the largest part broke off on lifting. The bow section (1/3 of hull) was hauled to the surface and they recovered hatch covers, sonar equipment, and two nuclear torpedoes along with the bodies of six of the Russian crew. The crew was buried at sea with full naval military protocols.
The third version is that the above two possibilities “white-wash” the fact that almost the entire K-129 was reclaimed along with two of its nuclear missiles and stealthily brought back to the States and fully studied to increase our knowledge of Soviet submarine capabilities. The case for this scenario is that the Glomar Explorer crew had to later deal with plutonian contamination consistent with exposure to nuclear warheads.
After operation “Azorian” the U.S. government transferred the Glomar Explorer to the Navy who tried unsuccessfully to sell the ship while she was laid up at Suisun Bay, CA. In 1978 she was leased to Global Marine Development, but the lease was cancelled in 1980. After being laid up for years, she was refitted in 1997 to a dynamically-positioned drilling ship, capable of drilling in waters over 11,500 feet (2000 more than any existing rigs). In 2010, Transocean acquired her for $15 million and in 2013 she began sailing out of Port Vila, Vanuatu. In 2015 she was allegedly shipped to Zhoushan, Zhejiang, China to be scrapped for its recoverable steel.
Was this really the ignoble end for the mysterious ship? Who really knows? She could have been refitted and been on a secret mission in the Arctic right now! After all, we are dealing with the CIA here.
“Project Azorian” and Hughes Glomar Explorer proved an engineering success, advancing the science of deep-ocean exploration and heavy-lift technology.
c. 2017 Mark C. Nuccio . All rights reserved
Contact Mark at - Mark@ designedge.net