Hannes Keller's 1,000' Dive

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Oceanaut

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Hannes Keller's 1,000' Dive
Excerpted from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure
by Christopher Swann (Oceanaut Press)​

On December 3, 1962 a Swiss mathematician named Hannes Keller reached the astonishing depth of 1,000'/305M in the open ocean off Catalina Island in California. Keller was outside his diving bell Atlantis for no more than two minutes and his companion died during the ascent, but the fact remained that an inspired amateur from a land-locked country had demonstrated that the limits to human exploration and exploitation of the sea lay much deeper than all but a few specialists suspected.

Keller started diving in 1958 in the Swiss lakes, making his own regulator out of wood because he lacked the tools to machine metal. It quickly dawned on him that unlike space exploration, diving was a field where an individual carrying out his own research could have a big impact, and that the way to do that was to break the world depth record. First, however, he had to find someone who could help him on the physiology side. That man was Dr Albert Bühlmann, chief of the cardio-pulmonary laboratories in the department of medicine at the University Hospital, Zürich.

Together, they devised a procedure that consisted of compressing rapidly with a series of mixtures containing high concentrations of oxygen and a maximum of nitrogen, switching to straight helium-oxygen only towards the bottom, then reintroducing nitrogen as deep as possible in the decompression, with subsequent complete substitution of nitrogen for helium, to accelerate the elimination of helium from the tissues. Decompression was a continuous ascent rather than being done in stages. This combination of switching inert gases and breathing high partial pressures of oxygen throughout the dive (always greater than 2.0 atmospheres) to shorten decompression was naturally kept under wraps and remained the object of intense speculation for several years.

In November 1959 Keller descended to 400'/122M in the Lake of Zürich in an upturned 50-gallon oil drum weighted down with large stones. The following year he progressed to less hair-raising methods when the French Navy, with some prodding from Cousteau, put the chambers of the Groupe d’Etudes et Recherches Sous-Marines (GERS) in Toulon at his disposal.

The first dive, to 820'/250M, went off in November 1960, and a further two dives, to 1,000' and 700'/213M, followed in April 1961. During the compression phase of the 1,000' dive Keller went from 300'/91M to bottom pressure in two minutes (a compression rate of 350'/107M per minute!), which he reported produced dizziness and tremors.

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Keller being suited up at the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (US Navy)

On May 10 of the following year, at the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), he went to 700'/213M, decompressing in the mind-boggling time of approximately 100 minutes. Dr Val Hempleman, the Superintendent of the Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory, who was present at the demonstration, was so astonished by Keller’s performance that he followed him around for several hours afterwards, expecting to see some adverse reaction; but Keller was totally unaffected.

Nonetheless, the general reaction at NEDU to Keller’s demonstration dive was that he was a physiological freak, and there was considerable doubt whether the procedure would work with anyone else. Keller decided the only way he was going to prove that his method was valid, and persuade the US Navy to give him a research contract, was to take someone else with him on a deep dive.

Having a flair for publicity, Keller went to see Kenneth MacLeish, an editor at Life, and proposed that he buy a round-trip ticket to 700'/213M. The price: $2,000. Life would get a dramatic and unusual story, and Keller would show the navy and everybody else that an ordinary human being could make such a dive and return to surface pressure without incident, just as he had. MacLeish agreed to go.

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Keller, in the constant-volume dry suit, before the dive in Lake Maggiore

The dive took place on June 28, 1961 off Locarno, at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore, in the presence of Lieutenant Commander Charles Aquadro, the official US Navy observer. There was no diving bell. The divers were lowered from a raft, on a platform that Keller and his assistants had built specially for the dive, breathing through mouthpieces from onboard cylinders of premixed gas.

There were four changes of gas on the way down and four on the way up, starting and ending with pure oxygen and preceded at the surface by one hour of oxygen to flush the nitrogen out of the tissues. Both divers wore Spirotechnique constant-volume dry suits, with two bottles of "universal mixture" on their backs in case of an emergency ascent. MacLeish received three days of training, and then it was straight to a new world record of 728'/222M.

Having thus shown the sceptics that their approach was indeed applicable to the average man, Keller and Bühlmann got two research contracts with the US Navy for a series of deep dives, using different subjects, to 500'/152M, 650'/198M, 820'/250M, and 1,000'/305M. The dives took place in 1962 at the University Hospital, Zürich, in a two-place chamber designed by Keller and built by the Swiss firm Sulzer. Those dives led up to the 1,000'/305M dive at Catalina Island.

For the dive in the Pacific, there was no question of descending and ascending exposed to the water as in Lake Maggiore. This time Keller drew up a plan for a cylindrical diving bell, which Sulzer then manufactured. Financial support for the venture came from the US Navy, with Shell Oil, as observers, providing the coring vessel Eureka as the support ship. The second diver was Peter Small, an English journalist who was a co-founder of the British Sub-Aqua Club.

On October 30, 1962 in what was the last dive of the US Navy series, Keller and Small spent five minutes at 1,000 feet in the University Hospital chamber. Decompression lasted 270 minutes with the divers breathing through mouthpieces.

This was a dry run for the open-ocean attempt and went off without any decompression sickness or other difficulties.


Continued in the next post
 
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Oceanaut

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Continued from previous post

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Atlantis off Catalina Island (Paul Tzimoulis)

The dive at Catalina, on December 3, was started and stopped twice because of bad weather. On the third attempt the bell reached the target depth of 1,000'/305M in 16 minutes as planned, with Keller, in contact with Bühlmann by telephone, pressurizing the bell as it descended. Down to 600'/138M, the divers breathed a maximum of nitrogen, then switched to helium-oxygen. The bottom mix, as on the chamber dive in Zürich, was 92% helium, 8% oxygen.

On arrival, Keller, breathing from bottles on his back, left the bell. Quite what happened next is unclear. Some sources said Keller was outside for two minutes, and that he tried to plant the Swiss and American flags in the bottom. A US Navy observer who was watching the picture from one of the two external television cameras was reported in Newsweek as saying that he saw someone get on the ladder and drop the flags, and that the excursion lasted no more than 30 seconds.

Either way, when Keller returned to the bell and reconnected to the onboard gas supply, he realized that the external cylinder of deep mix was almost empty. Knowing he could not continue to breathe from the mouthpiece, Keller opened the faceplate in his constant-volume suit and immediately passed out (to save money the bell was filled with air not helium). Small was instructed to do the same, but for some reason did not comply. The bell was then raised to 200'/31M in a continuous ascent lasting 17 minutes as scheduled, at which point Keller regained consciousness and opened Small’s faceplate. Keller now closed the hatch to seal the bell so that it could be brought on deck; but it quickly became apparent the Atlantis was losing pressure.

The two safety divers, Dick Anderson and Christopher Whittaker, a young English friend of Small’s, twice swam down to the bell to see what was wrong. On the second dive, they discovered the end of a swim fin stuck in the hatch; as soon as Anderson cut it away the leak stopped. Whittaker, who had appeared fatigued after the first dive, failed to surface from the second descent. His body was never found.

By the time the bell was lifted on board, the internal pressure was at 165'/50M. Keller was breathing the 50% oxygen, 50% nitrogen mixture called for at that point in the decompression. At 50'/15M, he switched to 100% oxygen. Ninety minutes after Keller opened Small’s faceplate, Small recovered enough to be able to talk, after which it appeared to Keller that he fell asleep.

In the meantime the Eureka set course for the Long Beach Naval Station, on the assumption that after what had happened both divers might need to be recompressed in a facility equipped for prolonged treatment. During the crossing from Catalina, the decompression was extended from the planned 270 minutes to 410 minutes to hold Keller and Small under pressure until the vessel docked.

When the Eureka tied up, the bell was lowered to the quay. Keller emerged in good condition, without any indication of bends; Small, who Keller had thought was asleep, was dead.

Thus a giant leap into the depths ended in tragedy, rendered still more tragic shortly thereafter by the news from England that Small’s wife Mary had committed suicide. Not for another ten years would divers again reach such depths in the sea*.

After the accident, Keller and Bühlmann continued to maintain a veil of secrecy around their "magic gases" as far as the press was concerned; but in 1963, as part of their contract with the US Navy, Bühlmann submitted a report in which he gave complete details of the breathing mixtures and dive profiles. Two years later, for the benefit of their scientific colleagues, Keller and Bühlmann co-authored a paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology entitled "Deep diving and short decompression by breathing mixed gases". In the circles that counted, the guessing was over.

*In 1972, off San Clemente Island, two divers locked out at 1,010' from the US Navy Mark II Deep Dive System aboard the USS Elk River

Scubaboard Footnotes

The Psychology of Pushing the Limits

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Sam Miller III

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"I say ole Chap- Welcome to the SCUBA board " as Dick Anderson would have said --dang I miss his humor.

Absolutely great chapter on such a historical event- a big Thank You for sharing

I was there that cold (For SoCal) December morning watching from my own boat when Keller made that historical dive
.
Some where in the confines of this board is/are posts of my fuzzy recollections of the dive. Not to detract from your posts I will search them and posts later if appropriate.

With the passing several weeks back of Jim Stewart, (see his biography in Passings on this board) one can only assume that Keller is the only remaining hands-on witness to his dive.

I have the LA Co "Blue Ribbon" investigation report as well as the copy of Triton: each document certainly was not favorable to Keller. I also recall he presented a program at the International UW Film Festival documenting his 700 foot dive- I have a copy of the program

Thanks again for the posts and the great photographs

SAM MILLER,III
 

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Wow! Scary & amazing all at once.

Yeah, especially when you consider that Keller and Dr Bühlmann did it with slide-rules and papers published by Haldane and NEDU. Granted Keller is a physicist and mathematician, but an extraordinary accomplishment given the era. This is the same Dr. Bühlmann that developed algorithms that many dive computers use today.

Edit: Link added for readers that have no idea what a slide-rule is. Man, I must be old.
 

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Yeah, especially when you consider that Keller and Dr Bühlmann did it with slide-rules and papers published by Haldane and NEDU. Granted Keller is a physicist and mathematician, but an extraordinary accomplishment given the era. This is the same Dr. Bühlmann that developed algorithms that many dive computers use today.

Edit: Link added for readers that have no idea what a slide-rule is. Man, I must be old.

I didn't think of that. Just makes it even more amazing!

(I kinda knew what a slide rule was, but had never seen one. But d*mn, how old are you? :p According to what I just Googled, slide rules stopped being used when Hewlett-Packard came out with the first handheld electronic calculator in 1972.)
 

Sam Miller III

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One of the posts I made some years ago --A recollection of the dive
Please bear in mind it is a recollection and may have an error or two

I have another recollection of the dive -- as I recall much more complete - will post when located
sdm ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Re Hannes Keller Dive--1962
I was there and can offer the following from a very dusty memory;
I was there in my 17 1/2 foot Sea King boat along with about 30 other boats. bobbing alone side the mother ship
It was a cool crisp winter day with minimum swell--I recall the event took place on the Avalon Banks where it is normally calm.
The dive began with not much fan fare other that some cheering when the capsule went over the side.
Then it was waiting! Borrrring! a nap, some lunch and chatting with others on their boats, since most were LA county UW instructors so we all knew each other, and had lots of stories and lots of catching up...
The tragedy began on the decent at 200 feet. It was known via deck monitoring that there was a gas leak from the capsule. Dick Anderson and a English UCLA student Chris Whitaker (s) were dispatched for a look see and repair..It was discovered Peter Small foot was caught in the capsule door and was unconscious, but Keller was breathing. They returned with Dick bleeding at the top of his head from pushing up on the capsule door with his head, Whitaker was bleeding from his nostrils as a result of this his his first deep dive. Dick obtained a sharp knife and went over the side to cut off a fin that was prohibiting him from closing the hatch door. Whitaker according to report or rumor also obtained a knife and slashed his over inflated PFV and followed.
Dick never had contact with Whitaker and surfaced with out him. After a short time all the civilian boats began a surface search, but no body surfaced-- Whitaker was lost forever.
Upon reaching the deck it was verified that Peter Small was DOA and Keller was alive and well.
So now two dead Englishmen .
After arriving at the dock Keller grabbed all the data and immediately headed back to Switzerland
.
A "Blue Label" Investigation board was established --which included number of military and scientific divers and LA County UW Instructors, Clint Degn, John Craig and Tommy Thompson. I have the report of the board but can't locate it at this time .. but it was certainly unfavorable to Keller.
Three weeks later Peter Small's wife, who was the sole heir to an Engish air plane manufacturing company, was so distraught at losing the love of her life stuck her head in a oven and turned on the gas, loosing her young life in the process
Now three English subjects are gone, directly and indirectly as a result of that dive.
I discussed the findings of the blue ribbon committee with Tommy Thompson, who was a neighbor so a lot of what I have described is from memory of being an eyewitness and from the discussions with Tommy.
About 2-3 three weeks later I ran on to Dick. Dick always had a massive head of hair...he parted it for me and there was a huge scab bed, proof positive that he certainly used his head to attempt to close the hatch.
The event has been all but forgotten in most diving circles, most recreational divers who were there are no longer with us; Jim Auxier, Al Tillman, Tommy Thompson, John Craig, Dick Anderson. Harry Wham (The Las Vegas dive shop owner, who was the official Photographer of the event) Harry's demise is cetainly a story for the dark of the night over a cool one..Only Jim Stewart (SIO CDO) was on the mother boat and is now 85, alive and well and lives in SoCal.
The US reports that I have read were not as complete as the English report published in the BSAC "Triton," THE British dive magazine of that era--It certainly did not pull any punches........
This dive was also was a preamble to the a "National Wet NASA.." AKA "Man in the sea."
A few years later Barry Cannon a member of Sea Lab died on national TV...then the "Man in the Sea" suddenly became the "Man on the dock." As a nation we have never recovered from these UW tragedies and have never reestablished a national program for UW exploration and exploitation--and it started with the Keller Dive...
I fear I have rambled on and on... But who knows were we would be if we as a nation spent only a portion of the money that we spend on NASA on oceanographic and diving research?
SDM "
 

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... The tragedy began on the decent at 200 feet. It was known via deck monitoring that there was a gas leak from the capsule...

Did you mean the bell's descent or ascent? I thought the bell descended at about 66'/20M per minute.

Sadly the tragedy started long before the Atlantis hatch was closed... when you view it with the benefit of hindsight. I know we lost a LOT more Helium just during leak tests on the Mark II deep dive system than Keller had available for the whole dive. Piping and valve quality on the Mark II was the same as on US nuclear submarines so the Atlantis didn't stand a chance. Granted you don't need $1,000 valves, but you need to know the few that hold Helium from the great majority that leak an old faucet.
 

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... According to what I just Googled, slide rules stopped being used when Hewlett-Packard came out with the first handheld electronic calculator in 1972.

I was 21 in 1972 and learned to use slide rules in High School math classes. I couldn't afford an HP and hated its RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) after convincing a friend to actually let me touch one. I have to admit, I never used that slide rule again after getting a TI (Texas Instruments) calculator for less than a quarter of the price a few years later.
 

Sam Miller III

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So interesting !
I recall a party during the same time frame when the late Charlie Gibbs brought a HP calculator to a party.
It became the hit of the party--every one toyed with it.

Fast forward
My wife and I supplied most school supplies for a small Mexican village for many years . We purchased hand held solar powered computers which I suspect had considerably more capacity than the HP at the 99 cent store for every child in the school
(see thread San Diego/Tijuana in September)

Sam Miller
 

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