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  • I’ve often been asked about the tall escape tower that submariners have to go through during submarine school. It looks terrifying and people always think the worst of it. But really it is the easiest part of the escape test. Before you get to the tower, you have to go through the pressure test. Nobody knows about that part of the experience.

    Your class gathers in swimming trunks at the base of the one hundred foot tower. Then they have you climb into a large cylindrical chamber and take a seat on the benches along the outside edges of it. You are tightly packed in like sardines, shoulder to shoulder. They pull the hatch shut with a loud clang and dog it down. None of this is discussed in advance. The instructor tells you that we are going to simulate the water pressure at one hundred feet and to grab your nose and blow when your ears clog up. If you have any discomfort, to raise your other hand and we will stop.

    Now we figured that if you raised your hand, you would flunk out of the school so we all sat on one hand. When they opened that air valve it was like the hissing from a steam engine. My ears must have popped at least a dozen times before we reached the forty-four psi that equaled the pressure of one hundred foot depth.

    They kept us at that pressure for a minute before releasing the pressure and bringing us back to sea level. We were then marched out and we had to stand for half an hour at parade rest to make sure no one passed out. My left ear had a small trickle of blood that I wiped off and we all kept each other upright for the allotted time. We were then allowed to go back to class until the next day. I think the delay for a day was to allow anyone the opportunity to opt out quietly and leave for the surface fleet without embarrassment.

    The pain from busting my ear drum was bad. I was now afraid that tomorrows assent through the tower was going to hurt even more. One of the guys told me to take a Sudafed to open my sinus before we go in the morning. I tossed and turned a lot that night worrying about failing the test. In the morning I took the offered Sudafed.

    That morning we assembled at the tower where we marched to a staircase and climbed up to the half-way point. They stopped letting anyone go the entire one hundred feet years before because of a medical problem. We climbed into another chamber like the pressure chamber, only this one had two hatches. This was going to be the real thing.

    They closed the hatch with a loud clang and began flooding the chamber. Since we had seen the procedure in the pressure chamber, we all were watching the two gauges on the bulkhead. One gave the “inside the water tank” pressure and the other our chamber pressure. When the water level reached the top of the inner hatch, they added air pressure to bring us to around twenty-three psi, just above the tank gauge of twenty-two psi. No pain!

    We were then given the instructions on how to “blow and go”. We would step through the now open inner hatch and hang on to the upper rim from inside the tank. Then you start to slowly blow a stream of air bubbles, release your grip and keep blowing all the way to the surface. Because the air inside your lungs expands as the pressure lessens, you have to keep blowing the entire time to avoid damaging your lungs. It’s a weird feeling to keep blowing that seemingly never ending stream of air bubbles.

    There are divers stationed at various levels to stop you if you stop blowing air. Their solution, if you panic and stop blowing is to hit you in the gut to make you start blowing again. Not pleasant, but very necessary. If you are a water-baby like me, you notice all the very lifelike paintings of sharks and orca’s inside the walls of the tank. I was in my element.

    That was the first trip through and you had to do it twice. The second trip was to be done with a Steinke hood, a self-contained breathing device with a hood that encompassed your head. No need to blow and go with that on. You put your hands over your head like Superman and flew to the surface.

    We were allowed to go a third time but never from the requested one hundred foot level. This time we went for the pure pleasure of it and to see how far out of the water we could fly before plunging back in. Only a few of us truly enjoyed the experience. Most just got through it and were glad it was over. Me, I would have gone a few more times if they had let me.
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