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EMFN (DV) Nathen Kibbler of Kleene, Texas, is one of only four technicians attached to Deep Submergence Unit's
Hard Suit 2000.
Photo by PH2 Aaron Ansarov




EMFN(DV) Nathen Kibbler practices his manuevers in
the Deep Submergence
Unit's pool at San Diego. These men must train extensively and log numerous hours in the suit before they are qualified to make dives in the open ocean.
Photo by PH2 Aaron Ansarov





Inside a suit that has an almost space-like appearance, EMFN (DV) Nathen Kibbler of Kleene, Texas, begins a long day in the suit, conducting endurance tests. Each man must stay inside the suit for long hours in order to calculate the limits a diver can withstand.
Photo by PH2 Aaron Ansarov

Experimental Dive Suit Flies Navy Divers Where None Have Gone Before
The Ocean ... the final frontier ... These are the voyages of the men attached to Hard Suit 2000. Their ongoing mission: to seek out distressed submarines, to give fast recovery to them and anything else that the Navy may need and to boldly go where no diver has gone before...

Sounds like something from the Sci-Fi Channel, right? Not quite: This is real life and it's happening to nine Sailors in San Diego. The small cadre, who can call themselves explorers of the deep, were recently picked to test and operate a revolutionary suit capable of almost any mission at great depths: the Hard Suit 2000.

The special dive suit, loaned to the Navy for testing from a Canadian company, has an eerie resemblance to the Michelin Man and is clunky and unsophisticated. But when a Sailor climbs inside the special suit, it comes alive.

The "2000" in Hard Suit 2000 doesn't come merely from the year 2000. Two triple zero refers to the extreme depth at which the Hard Suit can operate: 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, which is the deepest any diver has gone without making a saturated dive.

"In a saturated dive, the body is pressurized and saturated with nitrogen," said Signalman 2nd Class (DV) Timothy Roff, a Navy diver attached with Advanced Diving Suit, the North Island-based Deep Submergence Unit (DSU). "In the past, a diver could spend a week at depths like this, but they would have to spend another two weeks in a decompression chamber to recover. The Hard Suit makes all that a thing of the past."

Before the special suit was developed, divers spent days to descend to 2,000 feet. "With the Hard Suit 2,000, we can get to 2,000 feet in 20 minutes," said Roff. "We can spend almost eight hours down there, bring the suit back up, and change out men without any decompression or loss of manpower."

Roff said they could have a man switched out and back at 2,000 feet in under an hour, while the person relieved can rest for the next shift.

For the lucky nine at the DSU, working with the multi-million dollar specialized suit has been an opportunity long in coming. Months before they got the suit, the Navy's great dive reputation reached a company in Canada - the manufacturers and designers of the suit - and they struck a special deal. The Navy agreed to conduct extensive testing, not just in putting guys behind the controls or even in the maintenance, but to help in setting the standards. Everything these nine men do with the suit will be logged and used as the standard for years to come. From writing the maintenance cards to setting the limit for stay-time in the suit, these diving pioneers - enlisted men in the Navy, will chart it all.

"I feel extremely lucky," said Engineman (DV) Nathan Kibbler. "As a technician, I've been responsible and proficient in knowing every wire, bolt, knob and gear of this suit." The Texas native is one of only four technicians in the world to be trained to maintain the suit. "Kibbler can actually take the suit apart into hundreds of pieces and put it back together single-handedly," said Roff. "He's also probably the only fireman in the Navy who is writing maintenance cards."

Being a part of anything big is said to have its sacrifices, and the team members of DSU feel the same. Long hours with multitudes of repetitious checks, rechecks and cleanings before this suit can even touch the open ocean are some of those sacrifices. They have to be. There are, after all, lives at stake. The mission of this suit is endless. "It can be used to assist in the recovery of distressed submarines, salvage missions like January's Alaska Airlines crash and a wide variety of things that we haven't even thought of yet," said Roff.

Pitted against an unmanned Robot Operated Vehicle (ROV) - the Navy's current technology - the Hard Suit wins hands down. "We can see in three-dimension as opposed to a two-dimensional screen for one," said Roff. "We can also see 180 degrees and can reach into tighter places. It's just a lot more descriptive as to what we can see down there."

The most interesting part of the suit may not be the aluminum joints (each of which are specially cut from large blocks of super high-grade alloy) or even the fact that each of them are held together by a simple plastic wire slightly bigger than fishing line. What most of these divers agree on is the fact of safety. "Everything in this suit is safe," said Roff. "We really feel safe. And when we feel safe, especially at 2,000 feet, we can do our job much better."

There are many factors that interfere with working properly in extreme depths, like cold temperatures, total darkness and not knowing what is on the ocean floor. "With the Hard Suit, we don't walk or swim: we fly," said Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class (DV) Aaron M. Tomforde, one of the technicians with the crew. "With large propellers on the side controlled by our feet, we fly to our destination in almost any situation. Of course, it takes lots of practice."

Practice is what these men have been working on. Using a large indoor pool in their giant hangar, these men train extensively to find the extremes at which the suit can safely operate. "We have to find the levels to which we can set standards for divers in the future," said Machinery Repairman 1st Class (DV) Kent Kruse, who set a record for the suit, operating it without external power for almost nine hours.

By the end of the year, the men stationed with the Hard Suit 2000 will be fully operational and able to handle anything that is thrown their way. From recovery of crashes to recovery of downed submarines. Any way it's used, this suit will surpass any technology in use today.

At any given time, you can hear Navy divers saying, "Our pride runs deep."

These nine Sailors are going to ensure it runs deeper.

Story and photos by PH2 Aaron Ansarov, a photojournalist for All Hands San Diego Det.


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