Thrill-seeker Chris Brown, 61, signed up to join a mission to the wreck of the Titanic on the now missing submersible but changed his mind over doubts about its controls. A multi-millionaire digital marketing tycoon, Mr Brown paid a deposit to join a dive at the same time as Hamish Harding, who is one of five people missing after the sub lost contact with its mother ship on Sunday.
Mr Brown told The Sun he felt concerned at learning the vessel was controlled by a games console-style device.
The pilot uses a modified Logitech games controller with twin thumbsticks and four buttons which allow the operator to manoeuvre the vessel.
Mr Brown said he felt further unease because of technical issues and delays, which left him questioning whether the firm, OceanGate Expeditions, was cutting corners.
He said: “I found out they used old scaffolding poles for the sub’s ballast — and its controls were based on computer game-style controllers. If you’re trying to build your own submarine you could probably use old scaffold poles. But this was a commercial craft.
“Eventually, I emailed them and said, ‘I’m no longer able to go on this thing’. I asked for a refund after being less than convinced.”
An expanding international fleet of ships and aircraft is searching for the Titan, which is operated by OceanGate Expeditions.
The undersea exploration company based in Everett, Washington, has been making yearly voyages to the Titanic since 2021.
In the first bit of good news since the search began, a Canadian aircraft detected underwater noises, though the vessel has not been found, according to the US Coast Guard.
READ MORE: Titanic search team in the dark over mystery ‘banging’
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According to The Associated Press, David Lochridge, OceanGate’s director of marine operations, wrote an engineering report in 2018 which said the craft under development needed more testing and passengers might be endangered when it reached “extreme depths,” according to a lawsuit filed that year in US District Court in Seattle.
OceanGate sued Mr Lochridge that year, accusing him of breaching a non-disclosure agreement, and he filed a counterclaim alleging he was wrongfully fired for raising questions about testing and safety. The case settled on undisclosed terms several months after it was filed.
Mr Lochridge’s concerns focused mainly on the company’s decision to rely on sensitive acoustic monitoring — cracking or popping sounds made by the hull under pressure — to detect flaws, rather than a scan of the hull.
He said the company told him no equipment existed which could perform such a test on the 5-inch-thick (12.7-centimetre-thick) carbon-fiber hull.
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Mr Lochridge’s counterclaim said: “This was problematic because this type of acoustic analysis would only show when a component is about to fail — often milliseconds before an implosion — and would not detect any existing flaws prior to putting pressure onto the hull.”
Further, the craft was designed to reach depths of 4,000 metres (13,123 feet), where the wreck of the Titanic rested. But, according to Mr Lochridge, the passenger viewport was only certified for depths of up to 1,300 metres (4,265 feet), and OceanGate would not pay for the manufacturer to build a viewport certified for 4,000 metres.
OceanGate’s choices would “subject passengers to potential extreme danger in an experimental submersible,” the counterclaim said.
However, the company said in its complaint Mr Lochridge “is not an engineer and was not hired or asked to perform engineering services on the Titan.”
The complaint said he was fired after refusing to accept assurances from OceanGate’s lead engineer that the acoustic monitoring and testing protocol was, in fact, better suited to detect any flaws than a scan would be.
OceanGate Chief Executive Stockton Rush, who is one of those trapped on the vessel, defended the approach in a speech to a conference in Seattle last year hosted by the tech news site GeekWire. He described how he had taken a prototype down to 4,000 metres, saying: “It made a lot of noise.”
So he brought the vessel back up, and on a second dive it made the same troubling noises, even though it should have been dramatically quieter. The company scrapped that hull, which had been constructed by a marine manufacturer, and built another one with an aerospace supplier, Mr Rush said.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the company said the missing sub was completed in 2020-21, so it would not be the same as the vessel referenced in the lawsuit.
OceanGate also received another warning in 2018, this one from the Marine Technology Society, which describes itself as a professional group of ocean engineers, technologists, policy-makers and educators.
In a letter to Mr Rush, the society said it was critical the company submit its prototype to tests overseen by an expert third party before launching in order to safeguard passengers. Mr Rush had refused to do so.
The letter, reported by the New York Times, said society members were worried “the current experimental approach adopted by OceanGate could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry”.
In a 2019 interview with Smithsonian magazine, Mr Rush complained the industry’s approach was stifling innovation.
He said: “There hasn’t been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years.
“It’s obscenely safe because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.”
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