U-Plane - A Lost Opportunity

Mike Osborne FSAE MIED


The Ocean bed is the last true frontier of exploration on Earth. Mankind has stretched out to reach the heavens while the challenges of the deep remain, in terms of human commitment and financial resources, relatively ignored. The rewards for success in this area of exploration are enormous - from the vast untapped mineral wealth to the possibility of farming the sea-bed, not to mention the environmental and financial advantages of clearing the oceans of the many thousands of vessels that litter the ocean floor.

Way back in September 1991 the Institution published an article by Peter Booker about a unique submersible vessel dubbed by its inventor - Captain Heinz Lipschutz - as the U-Plane. A vessel of this design could fly underwater and would have many advantages over conventional submarines (see the accompanying description of its operating principles). Its successful development could by now have done much to push back the underwater frontiers, to the advantage of mankind, and helped to reverse our lack of vision to fruitfully explore the ocean depths. This would have almost certainly given a fresh perspective to the opportunities that await us. I believe our "explorer ancestors" have already turned several times in their graves over the lack of fortitude and endeavour in meeting this challenge.

The purpose of the original article written in 1991 was not only to highlight the potential of this exciting transport concept but also to draw attention to the apparent lack of foresight to grasp the advantages of Captain Lipschutz's invention. It was hoped that, along with the information published in various other journals, an appropriate authority or commercial company would be prompted to instigate some research.

It would appear that here in the UK, despite Captain Lipschutz's tireless efforts to draw attention to his concept, little has changed since 1991. However, in the recent past there is mounting evidence that others, notably the USA, the former Soviet Block, China and other Far Eastern Navies have woken up to the opportunity that the U-Plane presents and are, at very least, researching the possibilities. I am unsure to what extent the research and construction of a viable U-Plane has reached in these countries but it is clear they now appreciate the potential. On the other hand all available evidence suggests that the Royal Navy rejected the idea some years ago, against the advice of a number of junior officers and any other research into the U-Plane that may be going on in the UK is very low key. This is particularly difficult to understand given the UK's past performance in maintaining its position at the forefront of naval technology.

The concept which enables a submerged vessel to literally "fly" through water is ideally suited for a wide range of purposes. Its naval potential is perhaps the first that comes to mind but its commercial roles are even more rewarding and could be of long term advantage to mankind. One of the more obvious advantages would be the ability to move dangerous cargoes across the world's oceans with much reduced risk when compared to surface shipping. Other advantages would include the ability to explore areas of the sea-bed that have previously proved impossible to reach in order to extract mineral wealth, to assess the possibility of farming the sea-bed, and the new opportunities that would be opened for science and medicine.

This short article is just a reminder to those out there that, although late in the day, it is still not too late for the UK to take an active role. Captain Lipschutz is convinced that the cost of the development of the U-Plane will be relatively low in comparison to the resources provided for other projects. Projects which have offered far less chance of success and which offered far less potential than the U-Plane. Let us hope that this plea will be heard before all the initiative is lost.

Submarine verses U-Plane - What's the difference?

It all started in 1928-9, when Heinz Lipschutz, without access to a wind tunnel, was trying to test some aeroplane models in water. In order to do so he had to add lead weights to the models to overcome the unwanted buoyancy. This experiment made him realise that a submarine craft which could use both its buoyancy and wing lift effect together could be made heavier than one supported by buoyancy alone. This would permit it to be provided with a crew compartment strong enough to withstand water pressure at far greater depths than a submarine of conventional design.

A conventional submarine is designed to be positively buoyant, i.e. to be lighter than the water displaced by it. This sets a limit to its "all-up weight" and therefore to the hull strength that can be provided - which hence limits its maximum operational depth. For diving, its inherent positive buoyancy has to be reduced to neutral - which is done by adding ballast (i.e. by increasing its weight), but this does not increase its resistance to pressure. To surface, a conventional submarine has its ballast removed - thus again becoming positively buoyant.

The basic `U-Plane' (short for `Undersea-Plane') on the other hand breaks with this tradition. It does not need to have positive or even neutral buoyancy to operate but, like its counterpart the "Heavier-than-air-Craft", it makes use of wing effect to lift it through the water. This means its design can provide for its operation at far greater depths through the use of extra wall-strength - even at the ocean bottom - with a large safety margin and without the limitations of a conventional submarine or the need of assistance from auxiliary vessels. Furthermore, the U-Plane can be made considerably smaller and very much cheaper than a conventional submarine designed for comparative roles. The patent also Includes the provision for a special device that enables the U-Plane to become positively buoyant when floating on the surface.

By the inclusion of additional design features, such as inflatable elastic buoyancy bags and/or gas filled internal spaces within the hull, additional buoyancy can be provided when necessary to allow complete flexibility within the operational envelope - including the ability to hover silently at any given depth. This ability would make the U-Plane a very versatile form of sea transport.