Navy ROVs Mark Half-Century
Of Undersea Recovery Operations
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Now resting in retirement in the Cold War Gallery of the National Museum of the United States
Navy at the Washington Navy Yard is a Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV) that
the Navy employed for a variety of missions during the
Cold War through 2007.
With the Navy needing a capability to recover ordnance lost at the range off San Clemente Island, Calif., at
depths greater than the salvage standard of 400 feet, the
solution came in the form of an underwater remotely
operated vehicle (ROV). CURV I, the Navy’s first underwater ROV, began operations in 1965, with an initial
capacity to dive 2,000 feet. However, following the Jan.
17, 1966, collision of an Air Force B- 52 bomber and a
tanker aircraft during refueling operations off the southern coast of Spain, the Navy employed CURV I to recover
a hydrogen bomb that had settled on the seabed 2,850
feet beneath the surface. Four years later, this ROV recovered an instrumentation package that had settled almost
6,000 feet below the surface off Norfolk, Va.
A second-generation underwater ROV became operational in 1967. The Navy built three CURV IIs that
were mainly used for weapons recovery. These vehicles
saw service until the 1980s and operated at depths
ranging from 2,500 to 6,000 feet.
A more advanced system first came on line in 1969
with the deployment of CURV IIIA. CURV IIIB eventually would be lost at sea. The third ROV of this generation,
CURV IIIC, now on display at the Navy Museum, entered service in 1971 and would remain in use for nearly
CURV III ROVs featured two hydraulically operated
claws mounted to extendable arms. The claws could be
switched out with a variety of grasping, cutting or
working tools. The ROV featured active sonar and
television-transmission capabilities to locate undersea
objects. With greater capabilities, the CURV III ROVs
took on more complex missions. For example, in September 1973, a CURV III proved instrumental in saving the lives of two Britons trapped in the submersible
Pisces III in 1,400 feet of water off the coast of Cork,
Ireland. After a CURV III latched a recovery line, Pisces
III was lifted to the surface with only minutes of air left
for the two-man crew.
In the spring of 1976, the Navy deployed a CURV III
to survey the wreck of SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank
NAVAL HISTORICAL FOUNDATION
A CURV IIIC remotely operated vehicle on display in the Cold
War Gallery of the National Museum of the United States
Navy bears markings commemorating the recovery operations it participated in during more than 40 years of service.
in November 1975 during a storm on Lake Superior. The
dive quickly determined that the vessel had broken up
and was not salvageable. Later that year, a more successful outcome was realized when an F- 14 Tomcat that had
rolled off the deck of John F. Kennedy off Aberdeen,
Scotland, was recovered from a depth of 1,870 feet.
In a 1990 upgrade, CURV IIIC received a titanium
pressure hull along with new autonomous depth and
position controls making it capable of diving to 20,000
feet. The ROV exceeded this projected capability with
a successful test dive to 21,105 feet in the Puerto Rico
Trench late that year.
The increased capability was further demonstrated
in August 1991 when a UH- 46 Sea Knight helicopter
was lost off Wake Island. CURV IIIC facilitated a recovery from 17,251 feet beneath the surface. On CURV
IIIC’s final mission off Fiji in 2007, the ROV successfully retrieved the flight recorder and wreckage of an
Australian H-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
Nearly a half-century later, the Navy now employs
the CURV 21 as an underwater ROV to assist in salvage
and other mission requirements. ■
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
Foundation. The author thanks Robert Hanshew of the National
Museum of the United States Navy for assistance with this article.