Meet FLIP, the 60-Year-Old Research Platform That Flips

FLIP is famous for its revolutionary, 90-degrees flipping design that gives it immense stability.
Maia Mulko
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It looks like a ship. A huge, kind of weirdly-shaped ship, rising up in the middle of the ocean, or a bit like the upended Titanic as it sank. 

Unlike the Titanic though, the crew doesn’t hang from the stern’s railings, and they definitely don’t fall into the water — even if the watercraft (can we call it that?) is fully vertical. 

How is this possible? 

FLIP was born from specific research needs

It all started with two Freds: Fred Fisher and Fred Spiess. They were both researchers at the Marine Physical Laboratory (MPL) division of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — a department of the University of California, San Diego, that focuses on the study of oceans. 

In 1960, the institution was using the USS Baya (SS-318) submarine as a research base for measuring fine-scale fluctuations in phase and amplitude of sound waves for the U.S. Navy SUBROC (SUBmarine ROCket) program. However, MPL researcher Fred Fisher wasn’t completely content with it. This is because the effects of wave action on the Baya caused the submarine to yaw, limiting researchers' ability to obtain an optical or electromagnetic-bearing reference at the depth needed.

Fred Fisher reported these stability problems to Fred Spiess, who was the MPL Director at the time. Spiess, in turn, mentioned that Allyn Vine of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had once suggested upending a submarine to create a stable platform. Vine had come up with the idea after observing the stability of a navy mop floating in choppy water. He reasoned that a long, narrow, buoyant object would remain stable even when floating in rough water, and suggested that overturning a vessel might make it more stable. But how doable was this? 

Fred Spiess
Fred Spiess at work. Source: BrucePL/Wikimedia Commons

Spiess suggested that Fisher investigate this possibility, and Fisher conducted extensive studies using scale models to work out the flipping operation. Eventually, they received funding from the Office of Naval Research and assistance from commercial naval architecture firm L. R. Glosten and Associates, to build a ship that could flip according to the researcher’s necessities. Construction cost around $600,000. 

This is how the Floating Instrument Platform (or FLIP) was created. After two years of development and only six months of construction, it was finally launched in June 1962 at the Gunderson Brothers Engineering Corporation yard in Portland, Oregon. Soon, it started assisting experts in the study of long-range sound propagation for submarine warfare, which was included in the U.S. Navy's SUBROC program.

FLIP 1962
FLIP flipping in 1962. Source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

But FLIP wasn’t only meant for acoustic research. It has also been useful in not only studying wave height, water density, and temperature and also meteorological data collection, etc. After the Navy’s program was finished, FLIP supported research on a wide range of scientific fields, such as geophysics, physical oceanography, and ocean acoustics, atmosphere studies, marine mammal studies, laser propagation experiments, etc. 

FLIP is equipped with Doppler sonars, hydrophones, sensors, and two fully-equipped science laboratories to analyze data. The labs are electrically powered by three diesel generators that provide around 340 KW of electricity. Normally, there are 11 scientists and 5 crew members on board. 

Although it can work anywhere in the world (and it has worked in both Pacific and Atlantic oceans), FLIP is usually docked with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s fleet in San Diego Bay, remaining fully operational under the management of Scripps and the U.S. Navy. 

FLIP is a unique work of engineering 

Officially, FLIP is not a ship, but an oceanography research platform that can switch its position from horizontal to vertical and vice versa. It flips at a right angle (90 degrees) upon convenience, sinking more than half of its 355 feet long (108 m) body under water. Actually, when it’s in the vertical position, only 55 feet (16 m) remain above water. 

FLIP vertical
FLIP in vertical position. Source: U.S. Navy/Flickr

FLIP’s long and thin design is often compared to a baseball bat. Actually, it’s said that its initial model was crafted out of a Louisville Slugger bat. Other sources affirm that FLIP’s design was inspired by floating devices such as spar buoys. 

Overall, it is wrong to call FLIP a ship, because it’s not meant to sail. In fact, in order to avoid interference with acoustic instruments, no propulsion methods were included in the design of FLIP, other than a small hydraulic orientation propeller that can rotate the platform about its vertical axis. 

With no propulsion power, FLIP must be towed horizontally to research locations in open waters. There, it can be left to drift or anchored in up to 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) of depth (although it takes about 24 hours to moor it in such deep waters). Either way, it’s exceptionally stable and resistant to wave motion and twisting.

Given that it’s made of 700 tons of Tri-Ten steel, you may think that it would be difficult to make the platform flip. In reality, the process is very simple. FLIP’s operators only have to allow for the flooding of several ballast tanks. The weight of the water slowly lifts up the bow, which takes about half an hour. That’s enough time for everyone on board to head up on deck and accommodate themselves in the sections that always stay above water: The command area, the galley, the bunks, the restrooms, the electric generator room, and the labs. 

Apart from this, many of the platform's internal fixtures have been modified to fit in FLIP’s particular interior design. This is somewhat bizarre, but strategically planned to let the crew adapt more easily to the repositioning of the platform. Pretty much everything inside FLIP is configurated to work both horizontally and vertically. There are several swiveling trunnions to mount objects on. Toilet seats and sinks flip at a right angle, and showerheads are curved 90º as well.  Doors are installed on the floor and portholes on the ceiling — but only until the FLIP actually flips. 

Meet FLIP, the 60-Year-Old Research Platform That Flips
Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Flickr

The future of FLIP

FLIP is almost 60 years old now, but it continues to serve as a versatile research platform and has been used in a wide variety of studies, including the effects of pressure on sound attenuation, amplitude and direction of internal waves; studies on turbulence and thermal structure of the ocean; research on variation in properties of the earth's crust, etc. Studies of waves conducted via FLIP helped improve surf forecasting. 

Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

 FLIP also provides military support, partnering with U.S. Navy's Naval Research Laboratory, and national security research operations. Additionally, it supplies university students with hands-on training, and in a recent project, it was even used for a virtual field trip for 65,000 schoolchildren.

On the platform’s 50th anniversary in 2013, William Gaines, who had been FLIP’s administrator since 1993, said that, “the longevity of FLIP is a testament to [its creators] 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.”

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