Submersible Stress!

There is really nothing new about deep diving submersible vehicles. Ed Link and other innovators dreamed up models back in the 1960s that seemed like they were excerpted from the pages of a Jules Verne novel. Originally, these subs were employed in pioneering oceanographic and scientific projects and were responsible for opening doors to the oceans’ depths that had previously been considered unexplorable. As submersible technology became more affordable and diversified, the expanding commercial diving market quickly adopted such applications for survey and inspection work. In many instances, this proved far more cost effective than subjecting a diver to such an exposure.

I had firsthand experience with exactly this same scenario while working with Navy diving teams in early 1971. Our project was based in St. Croix, the largest of the U. S. Virgin Islands, giving us close proximity to the 11,000-foot depths of the Virgin Islands Trench only an hour’s steaming time from the Fredericksted pier where our support ship docked next to our operations partners, the sleek “fast attack” Navy submarines. Our job was to film these submarines and we had already passed the 300-foot depth mark several times as our work gradually moved deeper. This posed obvious risks including oxygen toxicity, narcosis, prolonged decompression some 10-15 miles offshore, and a rather overwhelming population of oceanic white tip sharks that liked to try to chew on us with unabated enthusiasm.

Our unit had been sent a small Kittridge one-man submersible but it was accumulating mostly dust and rust as it sat stored in a Quonset hut warehouse waiting for a suitable mission to justify its use. This sub was decidedly small: about 10 feet in length overall with barely enough interior space for a single operator to squeeze in. Most of the contraption was taken up with compressed air ballast, battery storage compartments, and a rabbit’s warren of pipes, hoses, and wires.

As our dive teams realized that we’d have to begin working past 300 feet soon, a well-intended senior officer decided that now was the perfect time to bench the divers temporarily and see if the submersible would be a better and safer method of getting our film work accomplished. It sounded good on paper: no divers in the water to get bent or nibbled on by sharks. And the Navy’s SOP called for a single technician, far below our pay grade, to be the operator. So they would even save money in the budget.

That last part didn’t go over big with the three of us in the dive team. We figured that if we were no longer needed on the sub film project that the Navy would find some other project for us that could be far more unpleasant. At the height of the Vietnam War and the Cold War with the Soviet bloc, there was no shortage of nasty places that we could be reassigned.

A not-so-eager electronics technician was selected from the ship’s crew to be trained as the submersible pilot. The Navy’s logic was that his skill with electrical systems, radio communications, and other assorted gadgetry made him the perfect candidate to run the sub. We would mount our underwater 16mm cameras to the outside of the submersible’s hull and show him how to manipulate the arms to point the lenses at the fast attack subs as they zoomed past. Like so many government plans, it was great in theory. But things quickly began to go awry.

For instance, it was determined on the first day of pilot training that the technician had some major issues with confinement in small spaces. And he didn’t swim. The claustrophobic nuisance was supposed to be cleared up by sending him off to have a chat with a psychologist that could help him neutralize those fears with some sessions on the couch. As far as his inability to swim, the Navy decided that swimming was not a necessary job skill since he would be put inside the sub on the deck of the ship and then lifted into the water by crane. Extraction following the dive was the same method so the imperative for him to actually be able to swim was considered a non-essential item to his resume.

Most of the first week was spent getting him familiar with the submersible’s internal electrical, hydraulic, and breathing systems along with the theory of actually “flying” the contraption underwater. This required indoctrination to the compressed air and fixed ballast systems along with use of the diving planes and propulsion motor run by the battery banks that would operate the single screw and allow the submersible to tool around at barely 2-3 knots. All of this training was done in a simulator without requiring our hero to actually get inside the sub underwater. By the end of the week, as we watched from the sidelines, we decided that our odds of being reassigned were looking less and less likely. We even speculated about asking for a raise when the Navy brass came crawling back to us in act of contrition. So we passively watched with rapt attention… all the while doing our best to look supportive.

Finally the big day arrived when the first dive would take place. The submersible was trucked down to the pier and loaded on to the afterdeck of the ship by crane. I had to admit that the damn thing looked pretty small. It was only about the size of a VW microbus of that era and squeezing through the tiny hatch was akin to being strained though a pasta maker. The plan was for us to get the pilot inside, secure the hatch, and then carefully lower the sub over the side in the calm water next to the ship. The ocean bottom was only about 35 feet below us and the pilot was to practice his maneuvers and drills in this benign environment before we tried him in deep water where the bottom was over two miles deep.

Two major obstacles arose before we ever got the hatch closed. Apparently, no one had bothered to explain that the actual submersible had a hatch that required us to bolt the pilot in from the outside. The only way to get out was to come back to the surface and have the support team release the bolts and remove the hatch. As far as our neophyte pilot was concerned this little detail was a deal-breaker of the first order as he loudly protested about being “locked inside a coffin”. However, he was persuaded to continue when it was pointed out that he couldn’t swim anyway and therefore had to come back to the ship where they promised we would unbolt him. While the logic of this argument was indisputable, he didn’t look any happier. But he was promised that a new hatch that closed from within was on the drawing board and would be fitted soon.

As he eased into the hatch opening, he read the plaque noting the depth rating of the submersible as “400 feet, experimental”. This proved not be a major confidence builder either. The pale look on his face was not improved by the senior officer’s assurances that he had no reason to go beyond that depth and that he had a variety of compressed air ballast tanks that could be blown to bring him up as well as a half-ton lead ballast pod attached to the sub’s keel that could be jettisoned in a complete emergency. And heck, the bottom for this first dive was only 35 feet down. What could go wrong?

With those words of wisdom implanted, we finally got him inside and bolted down the hatch. A hemispherical Plexiglas dome was affixed to the hatch flange and provided the only view port for the pilot. He settled into the seat with his head in the dome and stared back at us like a condemned man asked to make himself comfortable in an electric chair. We gave him an enthusiastic “thumbs up” inquiry to see if he was ready for the plunge and got back a weak affirmative signal that decidedly seemed to lack conviction.

Oh yeah… hand signals were all we had that day since the special radio for the pilot to communicate with his surface support team from the depths had yet to be installed as a newer unit was en route and would be ready the following day. But we exuded confidence as we smiled back and kicked the winch into gear lifting the sub off the deck and over the starboard rail. We held it steady after getting it into the water and pointed at the checklist through the dome while again inquiring with another “thumbs up” inquiry to be certain he was ready to be released from his last tether and begin the dive. A shaky thumb waggled from inside and I released the shackle.

In retrospect, I suppose we should have been suspicious when the sub began an immediate rapid drop to the sandy bottom and landed there in an explosion of silt that swiftly enveloped the entire area obscuring our view from the surface. But we figured that he was showing off with a grandiose start after his initial trepidation. His dive plan called for an internal systems run-through, tests to the backup breathing system, ballast and trim drills, and some simple maneuvers around the general area. He’d then return to the surface and we’d winch him back aboard.

It took about a half hour for the sediment and silt to clear and we watched from the surface with growing interest. But the submersible just sat there. After an hour or so, the diving officer suggested we don snorkeling gear and drop down to see what was going on. The shallow depth made free-diving a cinch and I settled down beside the plexi-dome and looked inside. A face contorted in terror and bearing a striking resemblance to the Crypt Keeper (or maybe Joan Rivers after her latest face-lift surgery) stared back at me in mute distress. I elected not to waste any time with a “thumbs up” as I could easily discern that the pilot’s thumb was not the finger he was stridently waving at me.

It turned out that in his initial angst he had failed to do his final ballast checks to attain positive buoyancy at the surface so when we released the hoist tether he plunged to the bottom like a falling meteor and then jammed the release on the lead weight pod. Apparently things went swiftly downhill from there and panic took over. With no radio to communicate and a wave of claustrophobia numbing his cognitive functions, he sat frozen at the controls in white-knuckled angst for over an hour until I showed up.

We quickly hoisted him back aboard but his career as a submersible pilot was over. A recurring image of what might have happened if the test dive had been conducted without a shallow bottom to arrest his descent haunted him for months. He would have passed the maximum “crush depth” depth rating for the sub in about four minutes and had a one-way ride to the abyss.

A quick survey among the rest of the crew revealed no one else who wanted to take over as Capt. Nemo. We were notified that the dive team would resume operations in two days. At least in our little universe, order had been restored and we were to remain safely in St. Croix for the duration of the Navy’s project. Sharks and long deep dives still looked better to us than a visit to Southeast Asia during that era. Ironically, I was later coerced into being a submersible pilot for more advanced vehicles and fell in love with technology.

But then again, I could actually swim…

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3 thoughts on “Submersible Stress!”

  1. Mike,

    In that era, we mostly used 16mm Arris or Bolex cameras in custom housings. Beyond 300 feet, we had to re-pressurize the housings underwater with a connector like an inflator. Then release the added pressure before ascending again… a bit complicated but pretty functional. We used lenses behind dome ports that gave us as much as 145 degree fields of coverage. In the clear water at depth, sometimes 150 feet horizontal, this allowed us to capture nearly half of the fast attack sub’s profile as they zoomed past. Our primary subject matter was anything that gave off a wake vortex (props, struts, diving planes, rudder, etc.) and so we concentrated on that stuff. Very exciting.

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  2. Awesome entry! What type of filming gear did you have while capturing the submarines?

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  3. Great story and a great read, had me chuckling all the way through.

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