Navy sub training tower may rise again in Groton

Forwarded by George Stoffels

By Robert A. Hamilton
Published on 6/27/2001

The old training tower at the Naval Submarine Base, originally completed in 1930 and since razed, may be replaced.

Groton — The submarine dive tower, for more than 60 years a landmark at the Naval Submarine Base, could return soon, as the Navy seeks to improve training in the area of submarine escape. Lt. Brauna Carl, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said the Submarine Escape and Rescue Review Group has determined that pressurized escape training could be more effective over the long term, so it has authorized a formal “analysis of alternatives.

”“Right now, the Navy is looking at costs and looking at design requirements,” Carl said, but what is planned is a $12 million dive tower at the base here, and possibly a second one at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor. The tower would be one of the tallest buildings on the base since it would have to accommodate about 100 feet of water depth. The old tower was 138 feet tall.

The proposal comes as the Navy is moving forward with plans to equip all its submarines with Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment gear, or SEIEs, which contain a full body suit and a one-person raft which allow someone to survive for hours even in arctic conditions.

“The suits are being put on the boats and they wanted to start evaluating the best way to conduct a training program with those suits,” Carl said. She said the Navy is working with other countries that use similar gear, particularly Britain, to study their training methods.

The issue is sparking some debate within the undersea community, because with the training comes some risk of serious injury or death from embolisms: bubbles of air that would be forced into a sailor's lungs if he or she doesn't follow the proper procedure.

But graduates of the old dive tower said the risk is more than outweighed by the advantage the training would give 140 or more crewmen if a submarine ever becomes disabled in water up to 600 feet deep.

“In terms of confidence building, and preparing
to deal with those conditions, I think it's worth the risk,” said retired Navy Capt. John J. Demlein Jr., who went through the training in June 1973.

“There would be a lot more problems if this ever has to be done if we don't have the training.” “I think it's valuable, and I think the dangers are minimal, because the instructors are going to be well trained,” said Rick Norris of Groton, a retired Navy commander who spent several years in the deep submergence program.

“It's like having prospective commanding officers fire torpedoes,” Norris said. “If you don't get to the point where the rubber meets the road, when you're faced with the real situation you might not react properly.

”The previous dive tower was constructed in 1929-30 at a cost of $120,000, and was closed in 1982. A 1986 study showed it would cost $267,000 to repair and $367,000 a year to operate it, versus $265,000 to demolish it, so it was torn down. In the 1980s the Navy instead built a submarine escape simulator that gives sailors experience in operating the escape equipment, but only a few feet below the surface.

During the half-century the old tower operated, thousands of submariners got a feel for what it might be like to do a shallow-water exit from a disabled submarine by rising through 127 feet of water.

One of the things the instructors stress is to exhale constantly on your way up through the water. As you rise and the pressure falls, the air in your lungs will expand, to almost five times its original volume. Failure to exhale can destroy lung tissue and cause embolisms that can block blood flow in the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Dr. William Norfleet of the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory said there have been some deaths recorded at the old dive tower in Groton, and internationally the experience has been about one death per 100,000 ascents, and four serious incidents per 10,000 ascents.

A Naval Submarine School official said with about 2,500 students a year passing through Groton, that could translate to about one serious injury per year. Norfleet also noted that modern dive training is making progress — the Japanese submarine fleet has reported no serious injuries or deaths in more than 20,000 training ascents.Of 170 peacetime submarine sinkings since 1910, about 95 percent have happened in water shallow enough for the crew to escape using the new SEIE suits.

But the more acquainted a sailor is with the escape procedure, the better his chance of survival. At 600 feet, you have about 30 seconds from the time you start pressurizing the escape trunk until you have to be on your way to the surface; if it takes any longer, you risk the bends.

Demlein said many of the risks associated with the pressurized escape trainer can be mitigated by proper supervision. If the staff is looking for people who are not exhaling properly, they can stop them from ascending until they let their breath out.

“I don't remember any really serious incidents while I was there,” Demlein said. “The instructors were all well trained, and they were pretty quick to handle it if you weren't doing things right.”Demlein said if someone is going to panic, however, it's better to have it happen in a training situation.

“You never get a chance to do that aboard ship, and it allowed you to have confidence that you could actually make a free ascent with the submarine escape apparatus we used at the time, the Steinke hood, and do it well,” Demlein said. Carl said that is the same conclusion reached by the Submarine Escape and Rescue Review Group.