The FLIP Ship

Seen out of context, it looks like a ship silently slinking under the waves, like the final scene in a disaster movie.

But have no fear, this is simply a very special U.S Navy ship, taking a ‘flip’ as it celebrates 50 years of cartwheels.

With an ability to drift over the ocean like a ship – yet transform into a vertical buoy in pursuit of scientific research – the Navy’s Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) is one of the most unique ships on (or under) the water.


Ready to flip: This ship looks fairly conventional at this point – but see what happens next..

Up and away: The Floating Instrument Platform begins to rise out of the water


Lifting… Lifting… If you look closely, you can see crewmembers leaning back on the top of the ship

…And vertical: The ship stands tall in the water, looking like a ship that is about to slip under the waves

The ship conducts investigations in a number of fields, including acoustics, oceanography, meteorology and marine mammal observation.

Dr Frank Herr, head of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department, said: ‘FLIP’s unique characteristic of a low-profile, stable observational platform has proven particularly useful over the years.

‘It will continue to be a research vessel of choice for our naval scientists.’


What makes the vessel so special is that it can partially submerge like a sinking ship by filling ballast tanks in its stern with water.

When in its vertical position, FLIP’s visible floating platform extends 55 feet above the ocean surface while the rest of the hull reaches 300 feet below the water.

Because so much of the vessel is submerged when it sits upright, the platform is impervious to the ocean waves, providing a stable environment for researchers to do their work.

‘I’m so thankful that ONR and Scripps have been able to maintain FLIP as an active platform,’ said Dr. C. Linwood Vincent, a recently retired ONR division director who managed a number of projects that employed the vessel.

Now on the faculty at the University of Miami, Vincent added, ‘It would be very difficult to conduct these studies on a rocking ship.’

Built in 1962, the steel-hulled platform accommodates 11 researchers and a crew of five for up to 30 days.

It does not have its own propulsion and must be towed to research locations in the ocean, where it ‘flips’ into vertical position in approximately 20 minutes.

FLIP, designed by Scripps scientists Fred Spiess and Fred Fisher, operates in two modes, drifting with the currents or moored to the sea floor, and supports the deployment of a variety of sensors and instruments.

‘FLIP was originally designed to study underwater acoustics – the bending of sound,’ said William Gaines, the program manager at Scripps.

‘In recent times, we’ve done a lot of the marine mammal research because FLIP has the ability to be very quiet in the vertical position. We can place hydrophone arrays far below the surface and put marine mammal observers up top to correlate the signals from the animals to the visual observations.’

In 2010, researchers used FLIP for a set of experiments called High Resolution Air-Sea Interaction project, which measured wind and swell conditions. That data is helping to improve weather models and other ocean-atmosphere databases.

‘FLIP was the pivotal platform for that project, which also included research done by traditional research ships and remotely piloted aircraft,’ said Tim Schnoor, the program officer who oversees ONR’s research vessel programs.

Naval Research Laboratory scientists recently employed FLIP for oceanographic work using lasers. Additional studies are in the works, and FLIP will continue to support scientists in their research endeavors.

‘It’s in good material condition,’ said Schnoor. ‘We’ve continued to invest in maintenance and preservation of the platform, including taking hull thickness measurements to ensure hull integrity. There’s no reason it can’t continue to serve research needs as long as we have users to exploit her unique capabilities.’


No detail overlooked: Naturally, if you need a toilet break when the ship is vertical, you will need a different sink – and be careful to pack your toiletries up properly


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