As anyone who reads this blog likely knows, the USS Kittiwake is a former US Navy Chanticleer-class submarine rescue vessel that was sunk off Grand Cayman in 2011 to be an attraction for divers. She is quite a popular dive site, and tens of thousands of divers visit her every year. When any dive boat ties up to her, the crew typically gives a dive briefing on not only the dive to be conducted, but also a short overview of her service to the Navy. I’ve heard the story of the Kittiwake many times, from many divemasters. Some are more accurate than others.
If you’ve taken the time to read the USS Kittiwake’s Wikipedia page, you likely remember she has a few interesting tidbits from her operational history. In February 1950, she provided divers and equipment during salvage operations to free the battleship Missouri, grounded in tidal banks off Thimble Shoals, Virginia. The USS Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the United States and is where the surrender of the Empire of Japan took place, ending World War II. Today the USS Missouri sits in Pearl Harbor with her bow pointed at the USS Arizona. She is said to stand guard over the men interred in the hull of the Arizona, and the 2 warships together represent the start and end of the war.
In July 1960, the Kittiwake stood ready to assist the ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington, as she successfully launched the first two Polaris ballistic missiles ever fired from a submarine beneath the sea.
She had also set various deep diving and recovery records, and recovered 12 Cuban refugees adrift in a small vessel during her exploits around the world.
These facts are seldom mentioned on dive briefings. However one claim to fame I always hear, is that during her tenure with the US Navy, she had recovered the black boxes from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. This story was widely circulated, and even published in a 2017 article in Scuba Diving Magazine. Except there is one little problem - the space shuttle Challenger was not equipped with black boxes.
The real name of what's commonly known as a 'black box' is actually a 'flight data recorder,' and the purpose of these devices is to provide voice recordings from the flight deck, as well as data recordings from an aircraft when it's in flight. In the unlikely event of an aircraft accident, the data recorders aid investigators in reconstructing an accurate account of the incident.
Black boxes are used on aircraft, not spacecraft. Spacecraft have their voice loops and other flight data telemetered down to earth stations in real-time, a luxury an airliner doesn't have due to the sheer volume of commercial flights worldwide. While some spacecraft do have various recording devices, they do not have black boxes in the traditional sense, simply because they add weight. Each pound of weight costs about $10,000 to lift into orbit, and adding such a thing really serves no purpose.
Now, before some of you write me to say, "This isn't true! Challenger did carry a data recorder!" Let me clarify a few points. Some shuttles did carry some recording devices of various types. The shuttle Columbia for example, did carry a Modular Auxiliary Data System, this was a recording device used to measure flight parameters on the payload the orbiter carried, and not intended to provide post-accident data. While true, during the analysis of the Columbia disaster, the MADS device did provide some data in the few seconds of telemetry lost during ionization blackout, it did not provide all data that a black box would have. Subsequent media reports often confused this for a flight data recorder. In either case, the Shuttle Challenger was not equipped with such a device.
I’m a bit of a history buff and and a massive space enthusiast. I’ve been fascinated by spaceflight since I was a child. It’s actually why I became a diver - it was the closest to weightlessness I could achieve without a PhD in orbital mechanics. I’ve read countless books, and watched every documentary I could. At an early age, I astounded my teachers by not only listing each man who walked on the moon, but what their landing site was, and the name of their command module. From 2009 to 2014, I worked part-time as a freelance photojournalist covering countless stories at the Kennedy Space Center.
So when I first heard the story of the USS Kittiwake recovering the ‘black boxes’ from the Shuttle Challenger debris, it didn’t quite ring true. I had always assumed this was just an issue of minor details getting altered as the story was passed from one divemaster to the next. Like the game of telephone we played as kids, cumulative error compounds inaccuracies as stories spread from one person to the next. For this reason, I never paid the inaccuracies much mind. Especially since one of my co-workers anointed me with the title ‘Technically Correct Man,’ I’ve done my best to hold my tongue when I hear inaccurate information.
However, I do enjoy history, and I like giving a factually accurate Kittiwake briefing, so I began to research beyond what I found on Wikipedia. Like anything else, I encountered all kinds of conflicting reports. Some indicated the Kittiwake recovered nothing. One story I had seen on multiple occasions, was she recovered the actual crew compartment from Challenger.
The idea for this article came from a group I had taken to the Kittiwake. Bob Bennet, of Bubbles or Not Scuba in Harlem Georgia, brought a group of divers to visit us. Among them was Bob’s longtime friend Barry. Both Barry and Bob are military men, Barry having served his career in the US Navy. As we tied up to the Kittiwake, I began to give my briefing. Barry excitedly told me he knew that the Kittiwake had recovered the black boxes. I couldn’t help myself - I informed him that shuttles were not equipped with black boxes, and he looked crestfallen. “I guess the Navy lied to me,” he said.
I don’t think there was intentional disinformation on the part of the Navy. (At least not in this case.) More likely it was the principle I mentioned earlier, that errors or exaggerations typically accumulate in the retellings of any story. Recovering Challenger’s ‘black box’ of course sounds more impressive than recovering ‘unidentified debris.’
It had also occurred to me that most sailors, even those who actually took part in the recovery, likely had no idea what they were pulling from the ocean floor. Something confirmed in 2018 at the Beneath the Sea Dive Show, when I had the occasion to speak with John Morgan, a former Engineer on the USS Kittiwake during the shuttle recovery effort. “I have no idea what we pulled up.” he told me. “It was big and it had lots of wires and cables. That's about as much as I can tell you.”
I decided to call in a favor from an old friend from my photojournalist days covering NASA. A fellow named Jay who is an aerospace engineer and a past colleague of mine who provided technical knowledge for the stories we wrote about spaceflight. Jay is a walking encyclopedia of space information and I've often suspected he was a supercomputer stuffed inside a humanoid body. More than once during press interviews, I had witnessed Jay stump NASA engineers with technical questions, and his historical knowledge of spaceflight activities. During endless hours of waiting on NASA press busses, my fellow writers and I would pass the time by betting whether or not he knew the answer to a particular space question. Jay never lost. He was the perfect guy to help me.
During our phone call, Jay knew off the top of his head that Challenger’s crew compartment was recovered by the USS Preserver - another search and recovery ship from the Navy. “That’s pretty well documented,” he told me. To my suprise, Jay didn’t know what activities the Kittiwake had performed when she was on station. He actually apologized for not knowing, and told me he’d find out. True to his word, within one day, I had an email from him with a document Naval Sea Systems Command Report on the Salvage of the Space Shuttle Challenger Wreckage sitting in my inbox. This was the complete report from the US Navy, published in 1988 about their recovery efforts.
It’s a long document - 134 pages. It has lots of sailor and engineering verbiage, and for some is considered a bit dry.
Page 25, Section 2.6.1: “Several Navy ships were provided by CINCLANTFLT upon SUPSALV request. These units were USS PRESERVER (ARS 8), USS OPPORTUNE (ARS 41), USS SUNBIRD (ARS 15), submarine NR-1, and USS KITTIWAKE (ARS 13).”
Page 61, section 5.8: “KITTIWAKE’s services had originally been requested on 12 March to assist in the classification and possible recovery of approximately 50 sonar contacts backlogged in the 150-300 fsw depths using mixed gas divers. When she finally arrived on 11 April, however, the NR-1 had already cleared the contact backlog and the requirement for mixed gas divers no longer existed. However the SUNBIRD and KITTIWAKE were each assigned one SRB shell target for recovery." Section 5.8 goes on to say: "On 17 April, KITTIWAKE entered a 2 point moor and recovered Contact #214 from 175 fsw using MK 12 SSDS air equipment.”
Contact #214 is listed in the appendix as: “Booster, Unknown Side, Large Curved External Piece."
While to some, this may sound like we are diminishing the role the Kittiwake played in the Challenger disaster. This is not the case. Anyone familiar with the Shuttle Challenger’s story, knows that almost immediately, the focus of the investigation was on leaking exhaust gasses from the right solid rocket booster. The Kittiwake’s recovery of this solid rocket booster segment aided in the investigation of the disaster.
An interesting footnote of the recovery effort: on page 22, section 3.13 summarized the financial management of the recovery costs. In this section, it is noted that the most valuable item recovered during the search for Challenger debris, was a duffel bag containing 25 kilograms of cocaine, found by the USS Sunbird. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency estimated the street value to be $13 million - just enough to cover the cost of the entire salvage operation.
The USS Kittiwake spent 50 years in the service of the United States Navy. From the handful of sailors I’ve had the privilege of meeting who once served on her, she had a varied and interesting career, and they all loved her. Here at Divetech, we enjoy taking care of her, and passing her story along to those that visit her.
Interested in seeing the Kittiwake for yourself? Come visit her on one of our regular diving and snorkeling tours. Learn more.