Richard Branson's 'Underwater Plane' Is 1st of Its Kind

"Necker Nymph" will be anchored to Branson's luxury yacht in the Caribbean.

February 3, 2010, 1:35 PM

Feb. 4, 2010— -- Sir Richard Branson, the mogul whose reach already extends from music to mobile phones to air to space travel, has added one more frontier to his portfolio: the sea.

This week, Virgin Limited Edition, the luxury division of the Virgin Hotels Group, announced that the billionaire entrepreneur is purchasing a first-of-its-kind underwater airplane.

Though the vessel moves through the water, not the air, the company that created it says it uses the same principles of flight through air for underwater navigation, making it capable of "undersea flight."

The "aero submarine" -- Branson's is named the Necker Nymph -- can dive to a depth of about 130 feet below the water's surface, carrying two passengers and a pilot.

The three-person submersible will be delivered later this month to Branson's private Caribbean resort, Necker Island, and will be anchored to the deck of Branson's luxury catamaran, the Necker Belle.

For guests who spend $88,000 to rent the high-end yacht for one week, the Necker Nymph can be hired out for an equally princely sum -- $25,000 per week.

"It feels fantastic. It blows everyone's socks away," said Graham Hawkes, the engineer who designed and built the submersible. "There's something just magical about flight. Period. It may seem like an odd word to use underwater, but we don't have another word. If you experience it, you just can't describe it another way."

Hawkes' company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies, has built about 60 conventional submersibles, he said, including one used in James Cameron's 1989 movie "The Abyss."

But those conventional subs, Hawkes said, are heavy and sink in the water. Hoping to create a craft that would make deep-sea exploration easier, he's spent 15 years experimenting on a different approach.

Branson's sub, which the company calls DeepFlight Merlin, is one of only a handful that Hawkes has built and the first of its kind to hit the market, the company said.

"Our goal was to get to the bottom of the ocean, to get more freedom," he said. "We need to build better, more agile, capable machines to move in the ocean. If you're an engineer and you follow the mathematics, it turns out the mathematics are identical to moving in air."

Underwater 'Planes' Weigh Less Than Conventional Subs

Unlike conventional submarines that use ballast tanks to create the weight to sink, Hawkes' new class of submarines uses downward pressure on the vessels' wings to "fly" to deeper depths. The Merlin is about one-tenth the weight of typical subs.

The Merlin can travel up to 5 nautical miles per hour, and dives last for about one to hour. Passengers follow scuba procedures and wear normal scuba breathing gear. (If divers are not scuba certified, they need to travel with a pilot who is certified.)

On a planet that is about 70 percent covered in water, Hawkes believes these new planes magnify the possibilities for exploration.

"Earth is a silly name for this planet," he said. "We've got a lot of discovering to do."

He also said that his submersibles are among the first to give humans the ability to move in the ocean alongside its biggest animals.

"We've been underneath big sharks, a pack of big hammerheads, you just end up grinning from ear to ear," he said.

Though Hawkes has been in touch with Branson for a while, he said he thinks the magnate's interest in the subs was piqued when he saw a version of the Merlin atop the yacht of venture capitalist Tom Perkins. (Hawkes also built a submersible for the late adventurer Steven Fosset.)

The model owned by Perkins, the Super Falcon, was Hawke's first vessel capable of sub-sea flight and seats two. But Graham said Branson will receive the slightly lighter Merlin, as his yacht couldn't handle the Super Falcon's weight.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Limited Edition said Branson will be the first to test it out when the "Necker Nymph" arrives in the Caribbean.

"He will be the first to try it," said Charlotte Tidball. After the vessel arrives, a team will be trained to operate it and, she added, it should be ready for hire by the end of March.

Though several people have inquired about the Nymph, there hasn't been a booking yet, Tidball said.

"I don't think it will be long before there is," she said.

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