Around the Way: DeepFlight designs sleek, personal submarines fit for a Bond villain

DeepFlight’s submersibles, like airplanes, rely on propulsion systems to rise and sink, according to the company's co-founder Karen Hawkes.

Two men wearing red knit caps sit inside a sleek, winged vehicle as it bobs on the ocean’s surface. They’re seated one behind the other, and their features appear slightly magnified inside twin glass domes that enclose each cockpit.

A third man wearing a mask and snorkel circles the vehicle, then gives a thumbs-up to its pilot, Graham Hawkes. Hawkes engages two propellers and directs the vessel, which looks more like a bulbous airplane than any kind of watercraft, into a dive.

This isn’t the scene from some futuristic fantasy movie — it’s GoPro footage filmed in 2013. The men are traveling in a Super Falcon submersible made by DeepFlight, the company Hawkes founded with his wife, Karen, more than 20 years ago.

“We’re really not like any other submarines that you’ve ever seen,” Karen Hawkes said during a recent visit to the company’s headquarters in Point Richmond.

She compared DeepFlight’s design to early fixed-wing airplanes, and drew a similar connection between conventional submarines and hot-air balloons. Balloons and submarines move up and down by changing their density, she said, but their range of movement can be limited.

DeepFlight’s submersibles, like airplanes, rely instead on propulsion systems to rise and sink—allowing them to maneuver freely once they’re in motion, Hawkes explained.

She said the submersibles have taken many forms since the first prototype was developed: A single-person craft in which the pilot lay prone to navigate.

“I always thought we had to take more than one person down so we could share the experience,” said Hawkes, who has served as a willing passenger in each of the company’s subsequent designs.

Most of these have wound up in the hands—and on the yachts—of the extremely wealthy. Billionaire Richard Branson, who founded the Virgin business empire, is among DeepFlight’s previous clients. Even in fiction, the submersibles have been linked with the super-rich; an early model belonged to the Greek business magnate who served as James Bond’s nemesis in the film For Your Eyes Only.

But the company plans to expand both the submersibles’ accessibility and passenger count in the future, said CEO Adam Wright. He gestured to a scaled model of the Super Falcon 3S, a three-person submersible that will be used to launch DeepFlight’s first commercial tourism service next year. Partnering with an island resort, the company will offer tours at a price similar to “comparable activities like sky diving or a fishing charter,” said Wright.

“More people have been to space than have seen the depths of the ocean,” said Charles Chiau, the company’s engineering director. He views the new three-person craft as more than a tourism novelty.

By bringing more people into the ocean, he hopes to “affect a lot more of the future policies” surrounding marine conservation. A scuba diver and ocean enthusiast himself, Chaiu said he’d also settle for “getting more people excited about the oceans.”

DeepFlight was previously in the process of testing an exploratory sub—the Challenger—designed to travel to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the deepest part of Earth’s ocean floor at 36,070 feet. That project has been postponed following the disappearance of its planned pilot, explorer Steve Fossett, in the Sierra Nevada.

Wright said DeepFlight’s latest design, the Super Falcon 3S, represents a shift in focus toward more conventional markets; it’s designed to travel at depths of about 300 feet—near the point light ceases to be visible underwater.

Anyone wishing to explore the ocean through underwater flight, however, will have to travel farther than the Richmond marina. After an initial life-support test in the bay, Wright said, the Super Falcon 3S will move to its beach-side home where the water is clear and blue: in the Maldives.

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