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by William Kenny

In November 2009, the Naval Submarine School opened the Submarine Escape Trainer (SET), which is dedicated to the achievements and memory of Vice Adm. Charles “Swede” Momsen. The opening marked a return to pressurized submarine escape training (PSET) after nearly three decades without it.

Addressing an audience of local community leaders and waterfront Sailors, the guest speaker, Rear Adm. Paul J. Bushong, then commander of Submarine Group TWO, made the following observation:

“Submarine Escape is a necessary skill [that] all of us hope to never need and to never need to use, but this facility and its talented staff are our guarantee that should that need arise, tomorrow’s Undersea Warriors are ready for any challenge in every environment in which our Submarine Force operates, today and tomorrow.”

At the core of this eighteen million dollar trainer is an 84,000-gallon pool, 20 feet in diameter and 40 feet in height, which sits atop escape trunks called the lock-out trunk (LOT) and the logistics-escape trunk (LET). This complex simulates the conditions a submariner would experience during an escape from a submerged submarine.

Pressurized submarine escape training takes two days and is both extensive and intensive. The morning of day one is devoted to verifying the medical records and medical history of the Sailors to ensure that no one with a health-related issue is put under pressure. The majority of medical issues identified are, in fact, temporary (head colds, allergies, etc.), so the students who suffer from them can return at a later date to receive pressurized training.

image caption follows
A Sailor trains in the submarine escape trainer at the Navy Submarine School at Naval Submarine Base New London.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Villalovos.

Sailors waiting for medical screenings receive an orientation and interactive overview in the form of a submarine onboard training (SOBT) tool that reviews the entire process of escaping from a disabled submarine.

The first afternoon, the class is divided into two groups. One group, Sailors who did not pass the medical screening for PSET, receives raft training. This consists of donning the MK 10 Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment (SEIE) suit, getting into the life raft and de-watering it. The raft is flipped, and the students must get out from under it, surface, and flip the raft right side up.

The second group enters the recompression chamber and conducts a pressure test. These Sailors are pressurized to the equivalent of 60 feet of sea water (on air) to verify that their ears can handle the pressure and to let them experience what pressurization feels like.

Both groups then muster together and receive instruction on submarine escape. They go down to the escape trunks and receive a brief on what an escape is like from inside the trunk.

Only those medically screened for PSET return for day two; the rest get credit for unpressurized training. On the morning of day two, the remaining students receive raft training. After lunch, they practice escaping from the 15-foot lock. For the escape, they wear an inflatable training life jacket and experience what it would feel like if their SEIE suit hood failed and their faces were in the water on ascent.

After successfully completing that escape, they are ready to conduct an escape from 37 feet. Before they are released to enter the trunk, an instructor demonstrates everything they will have to do and answers all of their questions.

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Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS) Fireman Apprentice Dominic Davis gets a full
orientation and overview on submarine escape training long before he ever needs to don
his submarine escape immersion equipment (SEIE) and get wet. Photo by William Kenny.

The Sailors don SEIE suits, and each one enters the trunk individually, accompanied by an instructor. As soon as a sailor gets into the trunk, he shuts the hatch, plugs in and zips up the hood. The instructor attaches the tether to the ladder as the student plugs in, and the SEIE suit immediately starts inflating. The hatch floods and pressure is equalized. When the hatch opens, the Sailor slowly rises, almost like a balloon, until the tether is taut.

The two instructors inside the escape tank take control of the Sailor and attach him with a second tether to the center line, which goes straight up to the top of the tank. That tether keeps the Sailor from accidentally bouncing off the side of the tank during ascent, but it doesn’t slow him down. (In an actual escape, the ascent rate is 10.42 feet per second.)

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(Clockwise from top) Blink and you miss it! A Sailor rapidly ascends from 37 feet to the surface during pressurized escape training at the Submarine Escape Trainer (Photo by William Kenny); A student learns to properly ascend from 15 feet to the surface in a submarine escape trainer evolution (Photo by William Kenny); Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Stas (left) and Petty Officers 2nd Class Chance Griffith (center) and Michael Gartman assist a BESS Sailor as he prepares to egress from the 15-foot LOT. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jhi Scott).

Outside the trunk, the Sailor receives an OK sign and says “HOOOYAHHH,” As he says “HOOOO,” the instructor releases the tether still attached to the ladder, letting the Sailor shoot to the surface unobstructed while saying “YAAAAAAH” (which ensures that he exhales all the way up).

Some 2,880 Sailors, including both officers and enlisted personnel, are projected to receive submarine escape training each year. As Rear Adm. Bushong said at the SET dedication:

“It has been a long journey from ‘Swede’ Momsen’s diving bell to this facility and the submarine escape immersion equipment, SEIE, we use today. But it’s all part of our relentless dedication to training innovation and excellence in support of the world’s finest submarine service.”

William Kenny is the public affairs officer of the Submarine Learning Center in Groton, Conn.