In the early 1960s, scientists Fred Fisher and Fred Spiess of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego’s Marine Physical Laboratory set out to create an ocean instrument like no other.
In need of an exceptionally stable platform for research related to a U.S. Navy submarine weapons program, the scientists envisioned a long, thin design that would minimize impacts from oceanic forces. Inspired by skinny floating devices known as “spar buoys,” their initial model was crafted out of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
When it was launched in 1962, the FLoating Instrument Platform (FLIP) was a one-of-a kind invention. Fifty years later, it remains a hallmark of distinction for both Scripps and the Office of Naval Research, the owners of FLIP.
Although Spiess and Fisher are now deceased, their legacy surges on as FLIP continues to provide a uniquely stable platform for research missions that include ocean acoustics, marine mammal studies, geophysics, meteorology, physical oceanography, and laser propagation experiments.
Administered and operated by Scripps, FLIP has served in projects supporting a variety of naval operations and national security research missions.
“For the past 50 years, FLIP has supported a myriad of basic and applied research objectives which have led to improved naval warfighting capabilities through the Cold War era,” said Dr. Frank Herr, head of the Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department at the Office of Naval Research. “This unique and valuable research platform continues to support naval objectives in science and technology development for the Department of the Navy of the 21st century.”
FLIP has no propulsion power so its 355-foot frame is towed in the horizontal position to and from its scientific research locations, which range from San Diego to Hawaii. To begin the flipping process, FLIP’s operators, currently led by officer-in-charge Tom Golfinos, direct water into several ballast tanks to begin a slow transition that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Once in the vertical position, 300 feet of FLIP is submerged. The remaining section features a command area, laboratory space, galley, bunks, and electric generators. To transition back to the horizontal position, FLIP’s crew uses compressed air to expel water from the ballast tanks.
Because its design accommodates riders in both horizontal and vertical positions, FLIP’s interior spaces often appear misleading and even bizarre, with doors mounted on the floor, portholes in the ceiling, objects mounted on swiveling trunions, and sinks and toilets mounted for both configurations.
Its unique configuration has led to head-turning on more than one occasion. Mistaken mariners have come to its “rescue,” as its vertical position gives the appearance of a vessel going the way of Titanic. FLIP has captured the attention of news media around the globe, with journalists and film crews covering FLIP from Japan, Korea, Canada, Europe, and beyond.
“As FLIP reaches 50 years old and continues to serve as a unique and viable research platform, we need to recognize those who designed, constructed and operated FLIP in support of Navy research,” said William Gaines, who has served as FLIP’s administrator since 1993. “The longevity of FLIP is a testament to their ability, skill, and dedication. The accomplishments of FLIP over its first half century of oceanographic research are significant. FLIP will continue to serve the oceanographic community in support of major research programs.”
– Mario C. Aguilera