SO482A.  Historic Shipwrecks: Science, History, and Engineering



About the Presenter:

Dr. Bob Mayer is a former Department Chair and a Professor in the USNA's Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Department, Division of Engineering & Weapons.  He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware.  Before joining the faculty at USNA, served in the Civil Engineer Corps of the U.S. Navy (1971-1978), and in the U.S. Naval Reserve (1978-1989). While on active duty, he was Resident Officer in Charge of Construction for the Navy's East Coast Air Combat Maneuvering Range that involved installation of four offshore towers. Also, as Assistant Officer in Charge of Underwater Construction Team One, he was involved in underwater cable repairs and installations, fuel terminal moorings and pipeline installations, and numerous underwater facility inspections. He is a qualified Navy Ship Salvage Diving Officer.  Dr. Mayer's research interests relate to the application of statistics, operations research and risk analysis methods to the management, engineering design, and construction of ocean engineering systems. His applied research  has been multi-faceted dealing with alternative energy sources, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, navigation channel design and maintenance, pipeline installations, underwater inspection strategies, waste remediation, and more.


Lesson Objectives:

  1. Compare the capabilities of ROVs, submersibles, and AUVs in marine surveying.

  2. Discuss how different vessels are built for conducting certain missions.

  3. Describe the search and recovery operations for TWA Flight 800.


Direct excerpts from NOAA’s “Ocean Explorer” Web site are provided below.  Upload the associated links, review the material, and be prepared to reflect on your learning.


This section of the Ocean Explorer Web site highlights the technologies that make today's explorations possible. These include the numerous vessels, submersibles, diving technologies, and observation tools that transport us across ocean waters and into the depths, allowing us to examine, record, and analyze their mysteries.  Begin your study of technology by reviewing the material on the following Web link.

Part I of this lesson will focus on a few of the vessels and submersibles currently used by the Navy and others for purposes of ocean exploration and discovery. Part II will primarily address the technology of diving and diving systems.


Vessels are certainly the most critical element in any oceangoing venture. Once it leaves the safety of its dock, a ship is an island unto itself on the open seas, its crew at the mercy of the waves. Any ship, be it a 15-ft sailboat, 150-ft fishing vessel, or a 1500-ft tanker, must, at a minimum, carry all of the food, water, fuel, and equipment that its crew will need to live and work in safety for the duration of the journey.  Review the brief ‘Vessels” Web link below:

Source:  NOAA


USS Grapple and USS Grasp

The USS Grasp and USS Grapple are “sister” ships belonging to a new class of rescue and salvage vessels constructed for the U.S. Navy.  Take a moment to review the operating characteristics and capabilities of these ‘sister’ ships on the following link.

Source:  NOAA

Other vessels of possible interest include the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown and the Research Vessel Atlantis of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). 


As much as we may learn about our planet's underwater habitats through the use of satellites, shipboard sensors and divers, these technologies scratch only the surface of the oceans. Submersibles alone enable us to explore the abyssal depths. This section of the Ocean Explorer Web site highlights some of the major advancements in submersible technology. These submersibles allow us to travel deeper and with a greater degree of freedom than ever before, so that we can observe, describe and ultimately explain the phenomena of life in the deep ocean realm. Open the following Web link to learn more about submersibles, both manned and unmanned, and their use in ocean exploration and discovery.

Manned Submersibles 

Manned submersible offer the advantage of transporting the underwater explorer, whether scientist of engineer, directly to the site of discovery.  Among the more notable of manned submersibles is the Alvin, owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).  The MIR submersibles are among the deepest diving submersibles in the world and, while developed for scientific research, were used by film producer James Cameron to film the wrecks of the RMS Titantic and the battleship Bismarck. Details of these submersibles can be found at the following links. 

Submersible Alvin

Source:  NOAA

Submersible Mir

Source:  NOAA

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)

Remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) are unoccupied, highly maneuverable underwater robots operated by a person aboard a surface vessel. They are linked to the ship by a group of cables that carry electrical signals back and forth between the operator and the vehicle. Most are equipped with at least a video camera and lights.  Additional equipment … may include a still camera, a manipulator or cutting arm, water samplers, and instruments that measure water clarity, light penetration, and temperature. … They have proven extremely valuable in ocean exploration, and are also used for educational programs at aquaria and to link to scientific expeditions live via the internet.  An introduction to ROV technology can be found at the following Web sites, along with a description of the operating capabilities of the ROV Jason and the ROPOS.

    (former exteranl link to NOAA is broken)

ROV Jason:  (former exteranl link to NOAA is broken)

Source:  NOAA


Source:  NOAA


Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)

One would be amiss not to mention the latest of ocean exploration technology, that of the autonomous underwater vehicles… essentially a robot with the ability to travel underwater without a pilot or tether. This offers the advantage of exploring (and documenting) vast amounts of ocean terrain over a significant period of time.  Just recently (2009), Rutgers University’s deep-sea glider, called the Scarlet Knight, was the first robot to cross the an ocean, all the while gathering and transmitting oceanographic data. It’s not far-fetched to imagine an AUV like the ABE (see link below) exploring the ocean depths for yet undiscovered shipwrecks.


Source:  NOAA

Search and Recovery of TWA FLIGHT 800

On July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines Flight  800 (TWA 800) exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just 12 minutes after taking off from JFK Airport in NYC.  Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted parallel investigations.  Although many alternative theories exist, including a missile strike from a terrorist or U.S Navy vessel, the FBI could find no evidence of a criminal act.  Meanwhile, the NTSB concluded that the most probable cause of the accident was an explosion of flammable-fuel air vapors in a fuel tank as a result of a short in an electric circuit.  As a result of the crash, new fuel tank design requirements have been implemented. 

The NTSB and FBI investigations would have been futile without an extensive search and recovery operation conducted in large measure by U.S. Navy salvage forces and supporting government contractors.  Details of the search and recovery operations appear in the 15-minute video, “TWA Flight 800.”


View movie in MediaPlayer from the web server


USNA Blackboard had the video in the dropbox


TWA Flight 800 debris site locations relative to flight path. 

Source:  "Aircraft Accident Report:  In-flight Breakup Over the Atlantic Ocean Trans World Airlines Flight 800," National Transportation Safety Board (2000).

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Last revision 3/29/2011