World famous FLIP Research Platform heads to Scrapyard after 61 years of service


( The Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) was one of the most innovative oceanographic research tools ever invented. Over the course of its service life spanning more than 50 years, the baseball bat-shaped platform exemplified the ingenuity of scientists and engineers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

On Aug. 3, however, FLIP's distinguished career finished its final chapter when it was towed to a dismantling and recycling facility, six years after its last research voyage and three years after reviewers determined that the costs to renovate it could not be justified.

“R/P FLIP has existed for more than half the length of the institution’s entire history,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. “It was an engineering marvel constructed during an important phase of new technology for ocean exploration following World War II. The many discoveries from FLIP help set the stage for ongoing cutting-edge science to understand our ocean.”

Over the decades, FLIP became an example of innovation at the institution, with its unprecedented design helping to advance society’s understanding of ocean currents, ocean acoustics, air-sea interactions, marine mammals and more. It inspired millions of school-age children, routinely appearing in grade school textbooks used in schools throughout the U.S.

“In recent years, the combination of FLIP’s exceptional dynamic stability, its booms which allow for measurements untainted by flow distortion due to the platform’s structure, and its ability to deploy a diverse range of specialized laboratory instrumentation in the field revolutionized our understanding of the coupling between the ocean and the atmosphere,” said Scripps oceanographer Luc Lenain. “It also played a crucial role in advancing and validating new cutting-edge observational technologies such as instrumented autonomous surface vehicles, radar, and electro-optical based remote sensing of the environment – tools that are now routinely used in ocean field programs.”

Launched in June 1962, R/P FLIP drew attention for decades from around the world owing to its unusual appearance and unique capability to “flip” from a horizontal position to a vertical orientation at sea. To scientists, that characteristic made it a singular tool for studying the oceans. FLIP maneuvered to its vertical position by filling its ballast tanks with water, causing all but the top 55 feet of its 355-foot total length to be submerged in the ocean. Oriented vertically, FLIP was supported well below the motion of the waves, giving FLIP its singular capability of remaining nearly motionless amid even violent ocean swells. This unique characteristic enabled the transformational science with which it became synonymous.

The platform was designed, built and operated by Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory (MPL), a laboratory that formed at the close of World War II as an offshoot of a University of California-managed effort that provided direct science support to the Navy during the war, and involved many from Scripps. MPL scientists Fred Spiess, Fred Fisher and Philip Rudnick, developed FLIP in the late 1950s. A veteran submariner and director of MPL, Spiess knew that access to the water column below the surface was prized among his fellow physical oceanographers but also that using submarines in research could be prohibitively expensive and elusive in the face of other Navy priorities.

FLIP was classified as a platform, rather than a vessel, because it had no propulsion of its own. It got to its destinations towed by seagoing tugs. Its stability and lack of engine noise made it an ideal tool for recording ocean acoustics and animal sounds, observing tidal forces, internal waves and small-scale turbulence. Hundreds of scientists from universities around the world used FLIP over the years, outfitting its hull with hydrophones, current monitors and other research instruments in port before deploying it.

Thus, FLIP was outfitted with amenities found on most research vessels but with a twist. All internal fixtures – toilets, sinks, bunk beds, dining tables in its galley and the stove/oven console in the galley’s center – all needed to be operable in orientations 90 degrees apart from each other. Many were fitted onto gimbals and some were duplicated in two orientations. What were floors when FLIP was horizontal became walls when it flipped to vertical. Those on board during the process received cards certifying that they had “flipped.”

“It was like being on land except in the middle of the ocean. It was just glorious,” said Scripps oceanographer John Hildebrand, who deployed FLIP to study marine mammal sounds greatly aided by FLIP’s own lack of noise. “There were things you could do with it that you couldn’t do any other way.”




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