Blaine man recounts testing military diving technology

Published on Thu, Mar 27, 2008
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Blaine man recounts testing military diving technology

Divers hired by a Seattle firm work 12-hours a day for weeks at a time 700 feet beneath New York City staying alive on helium and oxygen as they repair a water supply tunnel. News of this project was hardly startling to Richard Blackburn of Blaine. He was among a group of Navy volunteers that developed the technique 39 years ago, not to repair water supply tunnels but to tap the telephones of the Soviets.

Best sellers have told how the U.S. stole secrets by tapping Soviet cables during the Cold War. The courage of those who volunteered to work out and test the technology of living far below the sea for long periods remains known only to a very few. Blackburn’s short tale of his experience was a project for a writing class at the Blaine Senior Center that meets Wednesday mornings and is facilitated by Kay Dee Powell.

By Richard Blackburn

?It was February 16, 1969, the day for the deep sea dive I had dreamed about for five years. I had trained to do this job.

For ten years I had thought about it, ever since the first time I put on a mask and fins and the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA, for a dive into the kelp fields off Southern California.

There would be nine of us using a 24,000-pound diving bell to go from a support ship called the Elk River to the floor of the Pacific, 610 feet below, where we would live in our yellow submarine, actually something that looked like a railroad tank car that was painted yellow. It was 57 feet long and 12 feet in diameter and was lowered to the ocean floor by what at the time were the world’s largest floating cranes.

The Navy called it a saturation dive, something using more biological science than technology, I suppose. The theory is that if you saturate your body with inert gasses you can stay under water, deep under water, almost indefinitely. You get oxygen, just like a shallow depth diver, and you also get helium to take the place of nitrogen which can become toxic under the pressure of a deep dive. The deeper you go on nitrogen, the more intoxicated you get.

Divers call it the martini effect. Coming up takes time. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been down 24 hours or 24 days, the time is the same to decompress. Otherwise, you can get the bends, and they can kill you.

The idea for the project was formed years earlier. Some thought people could live under the sea for extended periods of time using the saturation diving technique. It had been proven and the Navy had perfected the formula for the mix of helium and oxygen through two previous experiments called Sea Lab One and Sea Lab Two. We were Sea Lab Three. It would be an aggressive experiment with five nine-man teams each taking its turn to live 12 days on the bottom.

What we really didn’t know, but probably understood instinctively since divers have a remarkable interest in their orders and how they can survive, was that our project was along the critical path of some top secret Navy projects.

The day began at a rapid pace. Sea Lab was already on the ocean floor in 610 feet of water at 48 degrees. The cold impacted some of the fittings. The large umbilical that carried the tubes of gasses and the electricity to our home was leaking.

My expectation of an exciting experience living beneath the sea had changed into a race to see if we can keep that home livable. The compressed time period for us to get from the surface to Sea Lab to make the life-support system repairs had its effect on our personal compression. We had joint pains, mental stress, fatigue and restlessness.
But there was no time to worry about the discomforts. We had to get there, open the device, get inside and fix the leaks before Sea Lab was flooded. The officer commanding the operation was on the Elk River.

He was under a lot of pressure to get the lab open. We were determined to make that happen no matter how cold or how tough it got.

I was there, a part of a project that took the life of a friend and I was never sure about how truthful the Navy was in reporting its inquiry into the part of the experiment in which I had a role. Half a dozen years ago one of my Navy colleagues sent me a copy of an Associated Press story that quoted the officer on the deck of the Elk River, Jack Tomsky. He was 82 then. He said that the world thought the Navy failed in the Sea Lab experiments.

But other reports, and some books, now tell the episodes of the story after my time living at 610 feet. For me that time passed sometimes slowly, sometimes too fast, but never for a moment, it seemed, without a rush of adrenaline.

What we learned, what we proved, even our mistakes, became part of the Navy’s tool kit to tap the military secrets transmitted over undersea cables by the Soviet Union as we waged the Cold War. But our electronic eavesdropping became known only after an American sold those secrets to the Soviets. Meanwhile, there are still mysteries and sometimes I like to think about some of what I did so deep in the ocean became precious to the people responsible for our country’s defense.