The USS Skate (SSN-578)-class nuclear hunter-killer submarines quickly followed Nautilus, and were a modest evolution on the basic Nautilus design. The four Skate class nuclear powered fast attack submarines were the first series produced nuclear submarines to join the US Navy, all four authorized in FY1955. They joined the fleet in 1957-59. They demonstrated a new range of operational effectiveness, from the deep ocean, to the shallows, and the polar regions. These were the vessels John Holland would have built but for the limits of science and technology at the turn of the 20th century.
The need for a nuclear propulsion plant similar to that of Nautilus but smaller, suitable for smaller subs, soon became apparent. Bettis Atomic Power Lab was given the assignment. This plant, know as the Submarine Fleet Reactor uses pressurized water reactor similar to that used in Nautilus, hut is much simpler and contains several improvements in operation and maintenance. Five subs - Skate (SSN 578), Swordfish (SSN 579), Sargo (SSN 583), Seadragon (SSN 584) and Halibut (SSN 587) - are powered by this type plant. The first four of this class are attack subs; Halibut was the first Navy submarine to be designed from the keel up as a guided missile submarine.
Skate (SSN 578) was commissioned 23 Dec 1957. On 24 February 1958, she departed New London on her shakedown cruise and, eight days and 11 hours later, arrived at Portland, England. Her 176-hour submerged transit of the Atlantic had set a new west-east record. On her return trip, Skate surfaced off Block Island seven days and five hours after departing Lizard Head, breaking still another record. She was the first submarine to make the transatlantic voyages to England and return while submerged.
In August, Skate crossed under the North Pole while exploring undersea routes beneath the polar icecap. During this trip, she spent 10 days and 14 hours and traveled slightly more than 2400 miles under the ice. She surfaced within the icepack nine times. One of these surfacings was near the International Geophysical Year's Floating Ice Station Alfa, where scientific information was exchanged with the resident scientists. With only a slight air of facetiousness, she claimed to be the first submarine to go around the world in one hour. She circumnavigated the North Pole on a circular course within one mile of the pole.
In March 1959, she made another extensive trip under the polar icecap-this time in winter. During this trip, she traveled 11,495 miles, 11,220 of which were submerged and more than 3000 under the polar icecap. She broke through the polar ice to surface on 10 occasions. Slightly less than five years after her commissioning she entered the yards to receive her first refueling and overhaul. She had steamed 120,862 miles, of which 105,683 were submerged, on her first core.
Swordfish was commissioned on 15 Sep 1958, and Sargo followed with her commissioning on 1 October. Sargo also did extensive polar exploration. Sailing from Pearl Harbor, she entered the Arctic Basin by way of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Fitted with a new iceberg-detecting 'sonar, she proved that it is possible for a nuclear powered submarine to cross this shallow route at any time of the year. Numerous ice ridges, some extending as much as 100 feet deep, were encountered. On many occasions, it was necessary for her to split the distance from the ice to the ocean floor, clearing each by just a few feet. She returned to the open Pacific through the Bering Sea. She had traveled 6000 miles in 31 days, and surfaced 20 times. Usually, it was necessary to break through the ice before she could surface.
Assigned to the Pacific Fleet after her commissioning on 5 Dec 1959, Seadragon reached the Pacific via the Northwest Passage during August 1960. She remained in the Arctic Basin during August and, on the 24th, became the fourth U. S. submarine to reach the North Pole. Another, but less-than-monumental first was achieved-the first baseball game held on the pack ice between the officers and enlisted members of the crew.
Two years later, on 2 Aug 1962, Skate and Seadragon rendezvoused under the ice at the North Pole, conducted antisubmarine warfare exercises and surfaced together at the Pole.
These boats were not considered as successful as the Skipjack class which shortly followed them, but they did serve as front-line submarines during the Cold War. They were withdrawn from service from 1984 to 1989 and all were scrapped in 1995.
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