The Balaos were similar to the Gatos, except they were modified to increase test depth from 300 ft (90 m) to 400 ft (120 m). In late 1941, two of the Navy's leading submarine designers, Captain Andrew McKee and Commander Armand Morgan, met to explore increasing diving depth in a redesigned Gato. A switch to a new High-Tensile Steel (HTS) alloy, combined with an increase in hull thickness from 9/16 inch (14.3 mm) to 7/8 inch (22.2 mm), would result in a test depth of 450 ft (140 m) and a collapse depth of 900 ft (270 m). However, the limited capacity of the trim pump at deep depths, and lack of time to design a new pump, caused Rear Admiral E. L. Cochrane, Chief of the Bureau of Ships, to limit test depth to 400 ft (120 m). Fortunately, in 1944 a redesigned Gould centrifugal pump replaced the noisy early-war pump, and effective diving depth was increased.
The Balaos incorporated the conning tower fairwater and periscope shears reduction efforts that were being retrofitted to the Gatos and the preceding classes in the original design, refining the reductions and reducing the fairwater to the smallest practical size. By the time the boats began to slide down the ways, lessons learned from patrol reports had been worked into the design and the bridge and fairwater proved to be efficiently laid out, well equipped, and well liked by the crews.
For the masts and periscope shears, the original arrangement for both the Government and Electric Boat designs had (forward to aft) the two tapered cone shaped periscope support shears, followed by a thin mast for the SJ surface search radar, and then by a thin mast for the SD air search radar. There were minor differences in how the periscopes were braced against vibration, but both designs were nearly identical. About halfway through their production run, Electric Boat altered their design, moving the SJ radar mast forward of the periscopes, then altered it again a few boats later by enlarging the SD radar mast. Late in the war, many Balaos built with the original design had the SD air search radar moved slightly aft onto a thickened and taller mast. These mast arrangements, along with the tremendous variation in the gun layout as the war progressed account for the numerous exterior detail differences among the boats, to the point that at any given time no two Balaos looked exactly alike.
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