Steering a sub is a lot like flying an airplane, except we're 400 feet below the ocean's surface, not 1,000 feet above it. And there are no windows.
Crew members consult gauges and video screens to see how far we are from the surface, the bottom, and anything we might be approaching. As stand-in helmsman, I watch the compass and depth gauges. I operate the rudder and the large fair-water planes (see diagram on the facing page) that make the sub dive or rise. To my left is the planesman, who operates a set of small horizontal flaps on the sub's stern. These keep the sub properly positioned in the water.
To bring the sub up, I pull back on the helm, a small steering wheel that looks like an airplane's. To dive, I push forward. To steer, I turn the helm left or right. Like an airplane, the sub lists, or tilts, when it makes a sharp turn.
An airplane or automobile responds quickly to steering changes. Not a sub. It's so long and heavy that it takes a second or two for any change to show up on the compass or depth gauge. Until you get the hang of it, it's easy to overshoot a new depth or compass heading.
Lt. Tim Martin and diving officer Richard Calden put me through a few course and depth changes. After about 20 minutes, helmsman Jeff Candelaria, who has been at my side to give me tips (steer with a series of tiny helm movements rather than sweeping twists of the wheel), takes over again.
Lieutenant Martin takes me to a screen that shows the path we've been following. "You did pretty well," he says. "No snaking back and forth."
So when do I get my submarine driver's license?