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The Advent of Commercial Helium Diving

Discussion in 'Diving History: Tales from the Abyss' started by Oceanaut, Oct 27, 2017.

  1. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Registered

    Advent of Commercial Helium Diving
    Excerpted from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure
    by Christopher Swann (Oceanaut Press)​

    From 1956 until 1962 a company called Associated Divers dominated deep diving in California, in what were the first deep-water oilfields in the world. Day after day this formidable combination of former abalone divers and ex-US Navy construction divers worked at 220'/67M-240'/73M on air, and occasionally even at 270'/82M. Out of the maximum 20-25 minutes the divers spent on the bottom, they might have been effective for no more than the first ten, but to go down to such depths, to accomplish a series of tasks and come up again alive was a feat few divers were capable of pulling off once, let alone over and over again.

    The problem was nitrogen narcosis, what Jacques Cousteau poetically referred to as "rapture of the deep." Since the oil companies were almost entirely dependent on divers, and since by 1956 nearly all the drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel was being done in over 200'/61M of water, there was a premium on divers who could do a job quickly and efficiently without drifting off into a state of oblivion.

    Tolerance to the effects of nitrogen narcosis therefore became a selecting factor: until, that is, an abalone diver named Hugh "Dan" Wilson, asked himself why they were not using helium.

    Wilson had a good understanding of science, acquired as a boy thanks to a neighbor who was a mineralogist, and at the Sparling School of Deep Sea Diving he had learnt what the US Navy had accomplished with helium. He knew that helium-oxygen mixtures made it possible to dive much deeper than with air, and he thought he could extend the bottom time in the 200'/61M –250'/76M range from Associated's 20 minutes to a full hour: all of it hard work.

    Compared with an air diver befuddled by narcosis and high levels of carbon dioxide, a helium diver would have a clear head and be able to put out maximum physical effort. It all sounded fine but he was unable to sell the idea. The oil companies were not about to try someone they had never heard of. And what was this helium business anyway? Wilson decided he would have to make a demonstration dive.

    First, he had to put together a set of gear. Wilson was on one of his many downswings in the abalone business, and money was short. This vetoed his original idea of buying a US Navy helium recirculator helmet and modifying it into something less cumbersome. Instead, he got Santa Barbara Radiator to knock a piece out of the front of his Japanese abalone helmet and solder in a bubble to take the second stage of one of the new Sportsways single hose scuba regulators. Breathing from a demand regulator would be less efficient than recirculating the helium through a carbon dioxide absorbent canister; but Wilson still expected to reduce gas consumption by about a third, and the design had the decided advantage of simplicity. To complete the arrangement he had a fitting made to clamp the Sportsways first stage onto a standard navy belly valve, with a second valve to route the gas either to the regulator or straight into the helmet on open-circuit.

    Wilson about to descend. The scuba regulator first stage, clamped to the navy belly valve, is under Wilson’s left arm. (Collection of the late Hugh “Dan” Wilson)

    Wilson realised that to make an impression he was going to have to go much deeper than the current working depth in the Santa Barbara Channel. He picked 400'/123M. Accordingly he obtained a dozen bottles of helium from a hospital supply company in Long Beach and proceeded to mix the gas: 20% oxygen, 80% helium for the first part of the descent; 10% oxygen, 90% helium for depth. All that remained was to make up the hose and find a crew.

    By then Kenny Elmes, the owner of a local oilfield supply-boat company and of the fuel dock in the Santa Barbara Harbor, had become Wilson’s partner. With an infusion of cash from Elmes, Wilson chartered a large fishing boat and hired Glenn Miller - a local fisherman who was to become well known in the sport diving charter business - as skipper. He also hired the corpsman in charge of diving at the Point Mugu naval base. The rest of the crew consisted of the cave diver Jim Houtz, a chiropractor friend, an underwater photographer from the Brooks Institute of Photography, and most important, Jerry Ruse - referred to by Wilson as "super muscles" - to tend his hose. There was no decompression chamber and no air compressor. It was deep diving on a shoestring.

    On November 3 1962, they anchored on the other side of the Santa Barbara Channel, in deep water off Santa Cruz Island. As Wilson was the only person on board familiar with heavy gear, he had to divide his attention between directing his helpers as they dressed him, including the crucial rigging of the abalone-style breast and back weights, and organising the rest of the preparations for the dive.

    His plan was to decompress on the US Navy 410 partial pressure table, which he thought would provide a reasonable safety margin for a 400'/123M bounce-dive. The unknown factor was the breathing on demand: the navy tables were intended for recirculating gear.

    As soon as his helmet was on, Wilson went over the side and down the weighted descending line. He had expected the water to be blue; instead, it was dark green, and it turned even darker green as he descended. Soon he was in near darkness.

    Then he heard Ruse’s voice over the telephone: "You’re at the end of your hose. Let’s come up."

    Wilson did not want to risk over-inflating his dress and blowing to the surface, so he deliberately kept himself heavy. It was at this point that Ruse’s muscles came into play. Hand-over-hand, foot by foot, he pulled Wilson up. At 140'/43M, the first decompression stop, Wilson happened to cross his arms over his breast lead: to his horror, it fell off in his arms. If he dropped it, he was finished. His crew’s inexperience and his failure to check the rigging of the leads had come close to killing him. All that the scuba divers who swam down could find to bring with them to tie it up was a length of fishing line.

    Wilson Decompressing. Note the fishing line to stop the breast and back weights from falling off. (Collection of the late Hugh “Dan” Wilson)

    At 50'/15M, as per the navy helium tables, Wilson switched to pure oxygen. Uppermost in his mind was the need to relax to avoid any possibility of oxygen poisoning. All hope of relaxation evaporated, however, when the huge torpedo shape of a bonito shark, attracted by his shiny brass abalone shoes, shot towards him. The brute veered off, came at him a second time, and veered off again. Only months before, a huge great white shark had come within four feet of him. Now, in a classic case of delayed reaction, he began to pedal like a frenzied Olympic cyclist, convinced the bonito shark was out to eat him. Then he started to hear clicking sounds, which he took to be a sign of incipient oxygen poisoning. On deck, Ruse assured him the shark was not going to make a meal of him and he calmed down and finished his decompression.

    On the ladder, no one could get Wilson’s helmet off, even Ruse. The pressure at 400'/123M had driven sea water into the leather breastplate gasket, swelling it like a sponge and jamming the helmet in place. There was nothing for it but to undo all the wing nuts and remove the breastplate and helmet in one piece.

    On the ladder after the dive, with Jim Houtz (next to Wilson) and Jerry Ruse (back to the camera). The helmet and breastplate, removed in one piece because of the swollen leather gasket, can be seen at the bottom of the photo. (Collection of the late Hugh “Dan” Wilson)

    Back in the harbor, Wilson and his crew measured the hose along the breakwater. Nearly all 410’/125M had gone straight over the side. Because he had worn the biggest leads he could find, as well as his abalone shoes, to make himself heavy, he added a "stretch factor". He put Ruse on one end of the hose, himself and a second helper on the other; then they pulled what they thought was the equivalent of his weight fully equipped and measured the difference. Wilson asked whether everyone agreed he had gone to at least 400'/123M. Everyone agreed. "Okay, said Wilson, "Sign this: I went 400'/123M."

    Continued in the next post
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2017
    Searcaigh, rjack321, couv and 7 others like this.
  2. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Registered

    Continued from previous post

    A few days later, thanks to Elmes, Wilson went to see the people at Phillips Petroleum. They, like everyone else, had read the front-page report of the dive in the Santa Barbara News-Press. The result was a work order to put a set of helium equipment on the CUSS I drilling vessel.

    Drilling vessel CUSS 1. (Collection of the late A.J. Field)

    Wilson now had to develop an organisation. He could not use the team from the 400'/123M dive because not one of them had any heavy gear experience. Instead, he recruited fellow abalone divers Lad Handelman and Whitey Stefens: Handelman for his tenacity and drive, Stefens for his toughness and determination and his skills as a rigger and welder.

    Of course, they had never breathed helium and, not being scuba divers, were unused to diving with a mouthpiece. Since Wilson still had some gas on the fishing boat from his 400'/123M dive, he used what was left to familiarise them with the mouthpiece helmet and the helium voice change, and the switch to oxygen at the 50'/15M decompression stop.

    On the business side he set up a contracting company, General Offshore Divers, consisting of himself, his wife and their lawyer, and a second company, General Offshore Diving Equipment Company, in which the partners were Wilson, Handelman, Stefens, and Elmes - invaluable for his business knowledge and general steadying influence, as well as for his oil company contacts. Reggie Richardson, a friend of Wilson’s, joined briefly as the fifth partner in the equipment company.

    For his commercial system, to avoid having to open and shut the various cylinders as on the 400'/123M dive Wilson piped the gas, as well as the air supply from the compressor, through a compact manifold box fitted with valves and pressure regulators, which he designed with Stefens’ help. What the diver breathed was thus controlled from one central point. Unlike the navy and his later competitors, instead of concealing the plumbing behind a panel Wilson left it exposed.

    The first dive came on December 9th. The task was to disconnect the BOP stack by backing out a series of large-diameter setscrews: a job that was supposed to have been accomplished by the Mobot. This was a Cyclops-like robot with a television camera in the middle of what could be called its forehead, which Shell had developed and which Phillips was using under contract.

    For its debut in the oil patch, General Offshore Divers was minus one diving partner, Whitey Stefens. That left Wilson as the diver, Handelman as the standby diver and Richardson as manifold operator. Ruse, the one member of the original group that Wilson held onto, and a fill-in, Warren Whitney, were the tenders.

    Wilson’s novel approach to counteracting the heat-robbing effect of helium -- which has approximately six times the thermal conductivity of air -- was to wear two specially made quarter-inch wet suits under his diving dress. Wilson thought that half an inch of neoprene, though severely compressed by the pressure, would still provide adequate insulation, and that the suit would fit so tightly that the helium would not transmit the heat.

    This turned out to be a serious mistake. After about three minutes at 233'/71M, his teeth started to chatter. Soon he was shaking so hard that his groin hurt for a week. Nonetheless, working in the dark with a flashlight, he managed to back out the Mobot screws the requisite number of turns, by which time he was in such an advanced state of hypothermia that in retrospect he thought he was close to death. When he started his ascent at 5:06 p.m., he had been down for 40 minutes.

    The Phillips supervisor had watched Wilson on the television monitor and had counted the turns to be sure the stack would come loose, but when the rig took up the load, it refused to budge -- because, as it turned out, the tips of the screws were in just far enough to hold it.

    All eyes now turned to Handelman. Phillips had to get the CUSS off the hole, and he was next. That meant that Ruse, whose relationship with heavy gear was as yet purely theoretical, had to put on the standby gear, which left the crew one man short since Wilson was in the chamber decompressing. It was a do-or-die situation. Handelman knew nothing about drilling rigs but he knew that if he failed to finish the job Associated Divers would be back saying, "We told you so".

    Handelman left the surface at 7:22 p.m. With the Phillips people watching on the television monitor, he backed out the screws the rest of the way. The dive lasted 13 minutes. Everything Phillips wanted done had been accomplished.

    Against considerable odds, Wilson and his new team had succeeded. Over the next ten days General Offshore Divers made a further six dives on the CUSS. For Associated Divers, which had dominated West Coast oilfield diving for the past six years, it was the beginning of the end.
    Searcaigh, rjack321, couv and 8 others like this.
  3. shoredivr

    shoredivr Contributor

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Ontario
    Thanks! This is an excellent find.
  4. Akimbo

    Akimbo Just a diver Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter marketing


    Let me get this straight. A shallow-water air-breathing abalone diver without US Navy training in heavy gear or diving physics and physiology introduced HeO2 diving to the commercial diving world? Then he makes his first mixed gas dive to 400' in open sea with an inexperienced deck crew? To make it more challenging, his improvised rig used a not-especially good-performing single hose Scuba regulator in his air hat modified in a radiator shop? Yikes!

    I have heard stories about Danny Wilson since leaving the Navy in 1973, which was after he started SubSea International. Unlike most commercial divers of that era, stories about him were NOT alcohol-fueled landlubber adventures that ended up with posting bail. Here's a little more perspective on him and the importance of that dive:
    Santa Barbara Helium Rush: The Legacy of Dan Wilson’s Gas Dive

    Thanks Chris, I really enjoyed and learned a lot from your book.

    Edit: It is an interesting cooincdence that Wilson's 400' dive was exactly one month before the Hannes Keller's 1,000' Dive. The Keller dive was all over the news at the time, but I never read a thing about the Wilson dive.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2017
  5. Akimbo

    Akimbo Just a diver Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter marketing

    Compressor and NothingClever like this.
  6. NothingClever

    NothingClever ScubaBoard Sponsor ScubaBoard Sponsor

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Atlantic Ocean and Red Sea
    Truly enjoyable historical reading. Thank you for posting!
  7. Jack Hammer

    Jack Hammer Contributor

    Great read. Thanks for resurrecting it
  8. Akimbo

    Akimbo Just a diver Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter marketing

    I recently reread Why The Mohole: Adventures in Inner Space, which managed to survive in my book collection since high school. Project Mohole was a scientific project to drill into the earth's crust to obtain samples of the Mohorovičić discontinuity, or Moho. Years of scientific and engineering work was completed before the project was cancelled, but that work was a tremendous contribution the offshore oil & gas development.

    I bring this up because the CUSS 1 was modified as a platform for new technology to drill test holes off California and Mexico. There is a good chapter on the Mohole project in Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas. This book also has a chapter on Taylor Diving & Salvage. The CUSS 1 was originally a product of a joint venture between several oil companies.


    A great deal of technology that was only fantasized about for the Mohole Project is in common use today. A considerable amount of that work also made Project Azorian possible -- the recovery of the Soviet submarine K-129.
    Compressor and couv like this.
  9. Akimbo

    Akimbo Just a diver Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter marketing

    This video describes the CUSS I used in the early R&D for the Mohole:

    couv and Compressor like this.
  10. Compressor

    Compressor ScubaBoard Supporter Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: NYS

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