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USNS Mirfak (T-AK 271) soon after completion.
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Class: ELTANIN (AK 270)
Design: MA C1-ME2-13a
Displacement (tons): 2,036 light, 3,886 full
Dimensions (feet): 266.2' oa, 250' wl, 235.1'pp x 51.5' e x 19'max, 18' max nav
Accommodations: 11 officers, 29 unlicensed, 12 passengers
Speed (kts.): 13
Propulsion (HP): 3,200
Machinery: Diesel electric, 2 screws
|270||ELTANIN||22 Sep 1955||Avondale Marine Ways||4 Jun 1956||16 Jan 1957||2 Aug 1957|
|271||MIRFAK||22 Sep 1955||Avondale Marine Ways||5 Jul 1956||5 Aug 1957||4 Oct 1957|
|272||MIZAR||22 Sep 1955||Avondale Marine Ways||21 Jan 1957||7 Oct 1957||22 Nov 1957|
|270||ELTANIN||T||Feb 1973||19 Apr 1988||2 Jul 1990||MA/T||5 Feb 1992|
|271||MIRFAK||T||11 Dec 1979||21 Feb 1992||23 Dec 1994||MA/T||Feb 2003|
|272||MIZAR||T||17 Jan 1990||16 Feb 1990||17 Feb 1992||MA/T||21 Jul 2005|
In 1954 Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas S. Gates ordered MSTS to assist in the planned construction of a string of radar outposts, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, across the northern Canadan Arctic. Its mission was to detect Soviet bombers attempting to penetrate American airspace from over the North Pole. Supply by sea would be necessary, but up to then no large ocean-going ship had attempted to navigate the waters east of Point Barrow, Alaska or west of Baffin Island.
The MSTS Long-Range Ship Construction Program of 1954 included seven specialized ships: six for the DEW line and one Roll-On/Roll-Off AK (later LSV) to speed up logistics support for the large U.S. force stationed in Germany. The six ships for DEW line support were one "LSD" (called an AKD from February 1955), two small AOGs, and three small AKs. The program also included the four long-range tankers of the T-AO 149 class. By October 1954 this program had became part of the Navy's FY 1955 shipbuilding program.
The three small AKs were designed to transport both dry and frozen cargo to resupply the many DEW stations including many that larger ships couldn't reach. Their design included an ice-strengthened hull for Arctic and Antarctic service, a light icebreaker bow, two subzero weatherproofed crow's nests including one forward with a steering station with direct controls, and polar environmental protection throughout. On 8 August 1956 the names of the northernmost stars ELTANIN, MIRFAK, and MIZAR respectively were given to the these small AKs on the recommendation of an officer in MSTS and they were numbered AK 270-272. BUSHIPS completed the contract plans and specifications for the three AKs at the end of December 1954 and then handed them over to MARAD to handle the contracting process. They were delivered between October 1957 and March 1958.
In 1958 the Distant Early Warning Line went into full operation. Support of the line shifted mostly to the Air Force and Canada, and by 1960 the DEW Line support responsibilities of MSTS were limited to Thule and Goose Bay. During 1961 and 1962, ELTANIN was modified at a New York shipyard to fill a new role as a seagoing Antarctic scientific research laboratory for the National Science Foundation with a helicopter deck aft, a weather balloon inflation shelter beneath it, extensive gear for meterological and upper atmosphere studies, devices to record and evaluate temperatures, currents depths, salinity and chemistry of water, geophysical instruments to study the earth's magnetic field and the earth's crust beneath the oceans, and special antennas designed for upper atmosphere physics. Anti-roll tanks were also added, along with protective bulwarks. On 23 August 1962 effective 15 November 1962 she was reclassified T-AGOR 8. She conducted a total of 52 Antarctic research cruises from 5 July 1962 thru 29 December 1972. In 1974 she was transferred to the Argentine Navy in a 5-year lease and renamed ARA ISLAS ORCADAS. In 1978 she participated in an expedition in the Weddell Sea during which its crew discovered an igneous underwater formation baptized Virginia Range. At the end of the lease period she was returned to the US Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, on 1 August 1979.
MIRFAK remained a cargo ship specialized in polar operations. She was initially assigned to the Labrador-Greenland-Newfoundland run and then was shifted in 1962 (replacing an LST) to a military supply run between Seattle, Anchorage, and Adak, Alaska. In 1972 she repaired the petroleum delivery system at Goose Bay Air Base in Labrador, then delivered cargo for NSF research in Antarctica.
MIZAR made a single voyage to Antarctica in 1961. The loss of THRESHER (SSN-593) on 10 April 1963, and problems handling heavy search equipment over the side from JAMES M GILLESS (AGOR 4) drove the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to look for for a larger ship than the usual oceanographic research type capable of being fitted with an inboard center well and resulted in the selection of MIZAR in late 1963. She was reclassified T-AGOR 11 on 15 Apr 1964. A "moon pool" based on that in USS HUNTING (AG 398) with defects remedied was installed at NSY Philadelphia beginning in late 1965 to support a remotely operated "fish." On 15 April 1964 CNO changed the class and hull number of USNS MIZAR from T-AK 272 to T-AGOR 11 effective 15 April 1964 and the class and hull number of USNS LT JAMES E ROBINSON from T-AG 170 back to T-AK 274 effective 1 July 1964. (ROBINSON was originally T-AKV 3 and first became T-AK 274 in 1959.) NRL was forced by increasing ship costs to choose between MIZAR and the newer HAYES (AGOR 16) and chose to retain HAYES. On 1 April 1975 the Naval Electronic Systems Command (NAVELEX), a major participant in Project CAESAR (the installation of SOSUS), informed MSC that it had a firm requirement for MIZAR and strongly desired to assume sponsorship of her as soon as possible after NRL completed removal of its equipment in July 1975. Also on 1 April 1975 NAVELEX informed MSC that after completion of removal of its equipment from FLYER (AG 178) it no longer had a requirement for that ship and recommended her disposal as soon as possible.
|270||ELTANIN||46||Delivered 1 Oct 1957. To T-AGOR 8 15 Nov 1962. Loaned to Argentina 19 Feb 1974 as ISLAS ORCADAS. Returned 1 Aug 1979. Berthed temporarily in the navy reserve fleet at Portsmouth, Va., 1 Aug 79 pending NSF determination of plans for reactivation for polar programs. To MA custody in JRRF 21 Feb 1990. Title to MA 2 Jul 1990. Departed JRRF 18 Mar 1992 following scrap sale.|
|271||MIRFAK||47||Delivered 30 Dec 1957.To MA custody 11 Dec 1979. Title to MA 1 Jan 1995. BU completed 17 Jul 2003 by Marine Metals, Brownsville.|
|272||MIZAR||48||Delivered 7 Mar 1958. To T-AGOR 11 15 Apr 1964. To MA custody in JRRF 17 Jan 1990. Title to MA 17 Feb 1992. To scrapping facility 16 Aug 2005, BU completed 27 Feb 2006 by Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC of Chesapeake, VA.|
Compiled: 7 Aug 2021
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2021