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South African designed prototype aims to improve safety of submariners
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South African designed prototype aims to improve safety of submariners

Innovation in submarine safety

SOUTH AFRICA: A South African developed and produced prototype that aims to address the shortcomings of the submarine tower escape safety system (TESS) was successfully tested by the SA Navy recently.

The project to develop the improved system was initiated by the SA Navy in 2009 in conjunction with ARMSCOR, the Institute of Maritime Technology and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The successful test was undertaken on board the SAS Manthatisi in water depths of 20m.

The tower escape system allows for two submariners to climb into the conning tower of the submarine at a time, wait for the tower to be flooded and then rise to the surface. The tower is then refilled with air, ready for the next two escapees.

Shortcomings in this two-man escape procedure were discovered during trials conducted after the Class 209 Type 1400 submarines were commissioned. It was found that the suits worn by submariners, which contain air, tended to force the bottom sailor upwards causing both of the two escapees to get stuck at the hatch opening.

The new system sees a special mechanical rail system fitted on the inside of the tower. Each submariner hooks on to this rail system, below each other. As the tower floods, the rail system keeps the submariners fixed in position, despite the air in their suits. The submariners are then released by means of a hold-trigger and release mechanism that is automated upon opening the tower upper hatch.

This system works even if the submariners are unconscious. The entire procedure takes approximately three to ten seconds for both submariners to surface at a depth of ten metres. The escape cycle is repeated until such time as the complete crew has escaped.

The SA Military Health Service Institute for Maritime Medicine also played an extensive role in the planning phase as well as providing medical support due to the risks associated with quick ascents, such as barotrauma (decompression sickness), hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is envisaged that the TESS will eventually be incorporated into all SA Navy submarines. The successful completion of the Tower Escape will also be an additional requirement to qualify as a submariner.

PHOTO: Chief Petty Officer Ayanda Mahlobo and Petty Officer Eric Luvhengo wearing the special escape suits.
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