Graham Hawkes and the Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Credit: Balint Porneczi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Sitting at the bar of a hotel in Pebble Beach, California, where every evening a bagpiper in full Highland regalia pipes the sun down across the links, Chris Welsh wears the uniform of the off-duty yachtsman. In shorts, a polo shirt, and a well-used pair of deck shoes, the 6-foot-3 Welsh sports a shaggy blond beard and a heavily weathered baseball cap bearing the logo of the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. It was there, over post-race cocktails in 2009, that he first heard about the orphaned vessels being sold off by the Fossett estate – a million dollars for the one-man submarine, another million for the carbon-fiber catamaran to carry it across the Pacific to Guam and the Mariana Trench. He says he knew he had to have Challenger the second he saw it in the workshop. "The door to the room probably hadn't been opened in a year and a half. It was a project that was asleep."

At that point, Richard Branson, whom Welsh had met a couple of times, had already considered reviving the expedition himself but decided it was too dangerous – for him, or even to hire someone to pilot it for him. Welsh juggled his real-estate investments to buy the submarine, and then flew to London to change Branson's mind, presenting his advisers with both a business plan and a pilot who was already committed to making the seven-mile descent. "I was going," Welsh says. "So the ethical dilemma of hiring somebody for something risky was done."

Virgin's plan now calls for not one, but five dives to the deepest points of each of the world's oceans. Welsh will pilot the first, to Challenger Deep; Branson, the second, to the bottom of the Puerto Rico trench in the Atlantic, conveniently located in the backyard of his private playground on Necker Island. Welsh still has no firm date for the Pacific dive but is planning to go this summer.

When we meet, his experience in submarines is limited to a few hours in a resort-tourism submersible in Seattle Bay, but he says his lack of sub-sea time doesn't bother him: "I've got thousands of hours of experience flying; I have beyond tens of thousands of hours on the water. I have the technical knowledge of how the craft works. I understand where risk is and where risk is not."

Hawkes is less sanguine. Sitting in his sailboat one evening in Sausalito, he reluctantly admits to concerns about Welsh's intentions. He emphasizes that he originally designed DeepFlight Challenger to make a single trip with Fossett at the controls, and then to be sent directly to a museum. He talks in intricate detail of the safety factors built into his designs, of the corners he agreed to cut for Fossett, of the way individual strands of carbon fiber might flex and snap when subjected to 1,000 times the atmospheric pressure of sea level.

"Look," he says eventually, "we've agreed to finish the sub off to its original purpose. It's their machine. I can't say what they can and can't do. Perhaps I could, but I don't. It's their machine, right?"

"But it sounds as if you would advise them to use it only once."

"It's designed only to be used once. That's the point."

Recently, Hawkes spent a summer reading history books about forgotten pioneers: early unmanned airplane designers; the fin-de-siècle Brazilian dirigible enthusiast Alberto Santos-Dumont, who kept a craft moored to a lamppost outside his Paris apartment; a Basque engineer who launched one of the first submarines. "Great characters," he says, "that did neat stuff – ahead of their time."

He says they taught him a crucial lesson. "One characteristic of being too far ahead of your time is that you die miserable and poor. I said, 'Karen, let's not do that. I may be poor, but I'm damned if I'm going to be miserable.' "

Today the small team at Hawkes Ocean Technologies is working on two defense contracts for DARPA and the Navy. Hawkes himself has little day-to-day involvement with the DeepFlight Challenger project; he is now simply a contractor, paid by Chris Welsh and Virgin to complete the submersible. He hopes to be the Challenger test pilot but isn't certain he will be.

Whatever differences he had with Steve Fossett, at least he wanted Hawkes to oversee the trench dive from beginning to end. Hawkes had anticipated sailing out of San Francisco Bay on the catamaran, passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge with the submarine strapped to the deck, bound for Guam. "I would have been grinning from ear to ear."

But those plans have changed. Now Hawkes, who spent so much time imagining his own trip to Challenger Deep, may not even be there to watch the submarine he designed begin the seven-mile journey to the bottom with another man at the controls. Yet he insists that being absent from the climax of a quarter-century of work won't bother him. In the days following Fossett's death, he says, he seriously considered taking everything he and Karen had and finishing the submarine himself. But then he realized that in his mind, he had already made the dive to Challenger Deep himself.

"It's very hard to understand, I know. But, I mean, I lived that project. When I wrote up Fossett's flight plan. . . ." He trails off. "I've flown that. I've flown that! It's how I design stuff. You know, how does that thing roll? How does it move? It's in my head. I've done it. Do I want to see if I'm right? Yeah. But I'm pretty sure I am. Do I know the psychology of going that deep? Probably as well as anybody. Would I like that challenge? Oh, yeah – I would like to do that. But is it going to eat me up that I can't? Best not to."

In the years following Fossett's death, Hawkes continued to improve the technology he had developed for DeepFlight Challenger. He invented a remote-controlled machine gun now used to guard nuclear installations across the United States and built a submarine that is faster, lighter, and more sophisticated in every way than the one that still sits unfinished in the Point Richmond workshop.

Originally built as a multimillion-dollar plaything for venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the Super Falcon is finished to the specifications of a luxury sports car and is even less like a submarine than its predecessor. A sleek two-seater with wings, rudder, and a tail, it looks as if it could easily take to the sky.

Hawkes plans to spend five days in Lake Tahoe experimenting with the Falcon's capabilities in underwater aerobatics – "hydrobatics," he calls them – for an upcoming National Geographic Channel show, 'Alien Deep.' "This," he says, "is the birth of underwater flight."

Hawkes considers the Falcon the zenith of his life's work, and whenever he talks about the experience of piloting it, he gushes with a geekish enthusiasm. He says he's spent his entire career making giant leaps in underwater technology but never stopped to fine-tune until now. "If you build a Model T and you can see the Camry, you don't spend time tinkering with the T; you go straight to the next thing. Once you build the Camry, you can see the Ferrari, so you go straight to that. This is my Ferrari." He pats the Falcon on the fuselage. "I may never build a sub better than this."

Back in Sausalito, after dinner at a marina restaurant, Hawkes tells me a story about James Cameron. He says the director once told him that if Hawkes ever did make it to the bottom, nobody would notice. "It would be like a tree falling in the forest," Cameron said. Only with a Hollywood film crew in attendance would the exploit gain a global audience. Yet Hawkes says he believes Cameron's vision of the ocean shown in 'Aliens of the Deep' is the wrong one, that the underwater films he's made are so garish and overlit that they make the undersea world look like a special effect.

And once he says this, the engineer becomes almost lyrical: He talks of wanting to capture the true mystery of the deep, the abyssal darkness and the soft fall of marine snow, the tantalizing shapes of the unknown casting giant shadows just beyond the cone of the spotlights.

"I'll tell you a secret," he says. "If you look carefully, you'll see camera mounts on the Falcon." Hawkes plans to beat Cameron at his own game – but not just yet. The camera technology, he says, is not quite where he wants it to be.