US Navy & Saturation Diving

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US Navy Diving

The beginning of the U.S. Navy diving program is unknown; however, official records indicate that George Stillson began developing the Navy’s program in 1912. The F-4 submarine disaster of 1915 somewhat paralleled the more recent Thresher incident in terms of government and public reaction. It apparently stimulated interest in diving. The first U.S. Navy diving school was opened in 1915. The Navy’s famous Experimental Diving Unit was originated in 1927. Navy helium-oxygen diving experiments began in the l930s and were used extensively in the salvage of the submarine Squalus (1939). During World War II, the great potential of military diving became evident.

The famous USN Underwater Demolition Team had its beginning in the summer of 1943. Personnel for this first team came from Navy Construction Battalions, Navy/Marine Scout and Raider Volunteers, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The World War II Frogman was primarily a surface swimming reconnaissance and demolition specialist. Diving apparatus was used on a limited basis during the war. The first open-circuit SCUBA was acquired by Commander Francis Douglas Fane in 1947. Navy UDT personnel saw extensive action in Korea and Vietnam.

U.S. Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Teams ONE and TWO were commissioned by John F. Kennedy on January 1, 1962. This special warfare group was organized and trained to conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla, and clandestine operations in maritime areas and river environments. Diving is only one of many special activities common to SEAL training.

Saturation Diving

Experimentation with living in a hyperbaric environment began in the early 1930s. The concept of saturation diving and living in underwater habitats was introduced by G. Bond (U.S. Navy submarine medical officer). In 1964 the first U.S. underwater living experiment, SEALAB 1, was conducted off Bermuda at a depth of 192 ft. SEALAB II and other projects followed as a part of the Man-in-the-Sea Program. Concurrently, Jacques Cousteau conducted the CONSHELF series of underwater living and work programs with a successful 28-day/330 FSW CONSHELF 3 submergence. More recently the TEKTITE, HYDROLAB, and AQUARIUS programs have provided opportunities for scientists to utilize saturation diving techniques.

The first commercial saturation diving job was conducted during the summer of 1965 at Smith Mountain Dam in Virginia. These divers remained at depths of 200 feet up to five days using the Westinghouse Cachalot system. The same system was used the following year for the first saturation dive conducted in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of 240 feet. In 1967, the working depth was extended to 600 feet. Comex divers (France) extended saturation diving to 840 feet in 1970. In 1988, Comex extended hydrogen-helium-oxygen saturation diving to a storage depth of 1706 feet with excursions to 1742 feet. Although divers are technically and physiologically capable of working to these depths, some authorities suggest that the practical working limit for modern saturation diving is 750 feet.

The diving industry was now pushing to greater depths and staying for longer durations. During the 1970s, working dives were made to depths exceeding 1000 fsw. Experimental chamber dives tested the diver’s ability to function in excess of 2000 fsw. The bell/saturation system became the mainstay of the diving industry. The new self-contained, closed-circuit, mixed-gas breathing apparatus was capable of sustaining a diver at depths beyond 1000 FSW for up to 6 hours. The increasing demand for the working diver in the oil industry and offshore construction had opened a new era of diving. During that decade the diving industry made tremendous advancement via commercial rather than military influences.

One Atmosphere Diving Systems

The first Atmospheric Pressure Diving system design appeared around 1715. It wasn’t ununtil the 1920s that Joseph Peress started development of a fluid supported universal joint. That led to the development of a successful armored diving suit in 1933. Although, successfully used in the 1930s, this suit and concept world lay dormant until the l960s. In 1968 a British firm recognized the potential significance of this diving system. It could be beneficial in the offshore petroleum industry and persuaded Peress to assist in the development of a second suit. The suit/system was named JIM after the first diver, Jim Jarret. Jarret used the suit at 150 meters in the salvage of the Lusitania. This concept, the One Atmosphere Diving System, played a dominate role in offshore petroleum industry diving throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Dives to more than 1800 feet were now possible without the complex physiological and logistical problems associated with saturation and decompression. Ascent from a dive to 1000 feet, now took only a matter of minutes compared to the eight days of decompression previously required.

Increased operational cost, risk factors, insurance, and technological advancement was soon to push saturation diving to an even lower priority in operational diving options. The 1980s saw major development in underwater robotics. The Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) would challenge both the saturation diver and JIM. In the 1990s, underwater robots emerge as the primary underwater work system. Would the diver be replaced? Not completely! The role that the diver will play in underwater work will never be the same as it was in the 1960s and l970s. The immediate future holds many advances in diving apparatus, techniques, and physiology that will influence the expansion of research, commercial, sport, and military diving activities.

The history of diving is far too complex and exciting to summarize in a few pages. Any student of diving will find the historical aspects exciting and informative. One must know how we arrived at our present level of knowledge and technology in order to build the future.