Hannes Keller Diving pioneer and Renaissance man

Text by Hillary Hauser

Fifty years ago December a 1,020 -foot( 311 m) dive off Catalina Island, California, changed everything. Hannes Kelleras revolutionary accomplishment accelerated a new age of deep sea diving, but the daring exploration came at a price

Keller prepares for his May 1961 chamber dive at the United States Navy Experimental Diving Unit( NEDU ). Photo: US Navy

On his sixtieth birthday Hannes Keller flew a Russian MIG fighter jet, the experience an imaginative gift from his wife Esther who knows well her husbandas love of hazard. A Swiss national, mathematician, philosopher, pianist, art devotee, computer whizz, Keller is the quintessential Renaissance man whose 1962 deep diving achievement took place long before others had even thought of the prospect, and until 1975 he remained the only person on countries around the world to have touched the ocean floor at such an extreme depth.

Today, divers are able to work in deep water thanks in big measure to Kelleras s early diving experimentations. The Swiss adventureras revolutionary dive to 1,020 feet( 311 m) off Catalina Island, California on December 3, 1962, was years before its day and everyone wanted to know how he’d done it. This was not a stunt as some claimed. It was a complex, scientific experiment to get man onto the deep ocean floor.A

And what made Keller do it? The dive was fitted with terrible risks. No one knew for certain what would happen. It seemed impossible. It would likely be the death of him. It did kill his diving partner and one of his safety divers. But Keller survived, emerging from the diving bell victorious, and though the loss of life was sobering, the result was proof that a human being could get to 1,000 feet( 305 m ). A

I first met Keller in 1968, when my husband Dick Anderson, a surviving safety diver on the 1,000 -foot( 305 m) dive, was awarded a contract from a major American publisher to write a book about the life of Hannes Keller. We interviewed Hannes, his friends and associates. We talked to Albert Buhlmann, the scientist who worked with Keller on the procedures and gas formula for the deep dives from his alungenfunktiona( pulmonary) laboratory at the University of Zurich. We spoke with Jacques Piccard in Lausanne. We talked to people everywhere, and little by little we
pieced together a story.

$ 1 Diving Bell

In 1959, someone told Hannes about scuba diving, and that was all it took. He built his own breathing device out of timber, which, in his terms aWorked very bad.a Almost immediately after that he decided to work on diving problems. He approached Dr. Buhlmann with some of his ideas. A physiologist, Buhlmann had been working on the problems of pressure on the human body.A

The two started working on the problem of nitrogen narcosis, its role in the abendsa and as an obstacle to clear reasoning at depth. Decompression also came under their scrutiny. In those days it was almost always impractical or even impossible. George Bondas asaturationa diving techniques had not been thought of at that time.

Keller and Buhlmann had a hypothesi that nitrogen narcosis might not be caused by nitrogen at all. With this in intellect they cooked up a plan for a 400 -foot( 122 m) diving wherein Keller would breathe a mixture of 95 percentage nitrogen and 5 percent oxygen.

This dive was staged November 1959 in Lake Zurich. Using a 50 -gallon oil drum that cost$ 1, for their diving bell, Keller went to the bottom breathing the nitrogen mix from inside the drum, which had been weighted with stones. To get back to the surface all he had to do was cut the stones off with a knife. While everyone on the surface gloried in this agiant leaping for diver kinda, Keller was 400 feet( 122 m) down in the lake struggling to cut the weights off his makeshift diving bell. The inconveniences became insignificant when, eventually, he emerged victorious.

There is barely enough aaira to breathe and it is bitternes cold, even colder than the ice water in which we now hover

Secret Tables

A major test for the Keller/ Buhlmann squad was to get a diver down and back in a short time. In 1956 there had been a world record dive to 600 feet( 183 m ), by a George Wookey of the Royal Navy, but that dive had involved 12 hours of decompression. Keller and Buhlmann got to work on their next project: to reach 700 feet( 214 m) and surface within an hour.

Working with a computer at the IBM Centre in Zurich, the two developed 400 secret tables involving gas concoctions for use to various depths up to 1,312 feet( 400 m ). After testing these computations on himself in high-pressure laboratory tanks in Toulon and Washington , D.C ., Keller was ready for a 700 -foot( 214 m) dive.

It took place on June 28, 1961, in Lake Maggiore between Switzerland and Italy. Kelleras diving companion was Ken MacLeish of Life Magazine , who was there for the escapade and to write a tale. With a floating aramada of spectators surrounding a giant diving platform anchored merely off the lakefront township of Brissago, Keller and MacLeish were lowered on a diving stage. Wearing dry suits and rubber helmets with faceplates and mouthpieces built in, the two divers breathed a combination of gases furnished from tall tanks lashed vertically to the frame of their diving stage.A

They were to start and finish the diving with pure oxygen. Below 50 feet( 15 m) they would breathe three different mixtures containing some oxygen, which would be greatly reduced for the deepest part of the dive. According to MacLeishas Life Magazine account, Keller guaranteed that neither of them would suffer nitrogen narcosis.

The divers started their descent. At 30 feet( 9m ), they switched from oxygen to the first gas. Then at 164 feet( 50 m) another change, and again at 180 feet( 55 m ). Each day Keller stimulated the switch for them both and then disconnected the drop line that had supplied the previous gas.

At 328 feet( 100 m) the divers stopped to switch to the deep-water concoction. MacLeish afterwards wrote: aThis time the change is extreme. There is barely enough aaira to breathe and it is bitter cold, even colder than the ice water in which we now hover. My teeth itching. I try to say okay but cannot manage it. Still, it appears that we can live on what we are getting.a

The descent continued: 492 feet( 150 m) a | 525 feet( 160 m )… 558 feet( 170 m) a | 591 feet( 180 m )… 689 feet( 210 m) a | 705 feet( 215 m) a | 728 feet( 222 m ), in 7 minutes 30 seconds.

On the route up the divers stopped at 160 feet( 49 m) to switch gases. Over their earphones they now hear music, piped down from the surface to give them something to decompress by. At 50 feet( 15 m) MacLeish noticed blood and foam in Kelleras mask: an ear squeezing. At 30 feet( 9m) they switched to oxygen, sitting on the stage for a hour before they began exerting and kicking in place just to stay warm.

One hour after they had begun the dive, the men resurfaced: official depth 728 feet( 222 m ). MacLeishas story made the August 4, 1961 issue of Life Magazine , featuring John F. Kennedy on the cover-up with his quote, aAny dangerous athletic is tenable if brave men will make it so.a

Keller with Kenneth MacLeish at Lake Maggiore. Photo: US Navy

Big Oil Interested

Now, international oil companies became greatly interested in Kelleras experimentations, for in the greater depths of the worldas oceans were vast treasures of petroleum waiting to be tapped. No matter how sophisticated robotic limbs and manipulators might become, the human rights hand was, and remains, the most important tool for delicate situations, such as the workings of valves and flanges.

Shell Oil leaped at the chance to finance Kelleras next dive a the big one to 1,000 feet( 305 m ). Out of it, the company would receive Kelleras secret technology and thereby become an instant frontrunner in offshore oil exploration.

Keller and Buhlmann extended their computerized formula of gases and they chose the Catalina Island site off Southern California, where the ocean floor fells precipitously from the shoreline into a deep ocean furrow. On this occasion Kelleras diving partner was the British photojournalist Peter Small, a cofounder of the British Sub Aqua Club. Their vehicle was the diving bell Atlantis , which would be lowered from a surface area subsistence ship that carried a technical team to monitor gases and maintain contact with the divers by a surface to buzzer phone connect. Dick Anderson and Chris Whittaker formed the safety diver team on board. In retrospect no one could figure out why there were only two safety divers, but hindsight is always sharp when a disaster occurs.

On December 3, 1962, the diving commenced. Keller and Small got into the Atlantis and the hatch was closed. The chamber was hoisted over the side of the subsistence ship and began its rapid plunge to the bottom, stopping at various stages for the switching of gases as had been done during the Lake Maggiore diving. At 12:35 p.m. the divers reached the bottom.A

As planned, the divers switched from the gas mixture inside the bell to another gas concoction supplied to them through hoses attached to their faceplates. Keller opened the hatch of the Atlantis and the two went out briefly, only long enough to plant a flag of victory on the ocean floor, and then they returned to the bell.

Fatal Errors

Once inside, the divers were to open their faceplates to again breath that gas mixture in the bell and as I remember Keller telling the tale back then, he said the divers knew they would lose consciousness when they opened their faceplates, but also knew they would regain consciousness as the buzzer ascended.

Keller opened his faceplate and passed out. Small saw this and apparently froze, failing to open his. The buzzer began its ascent to the surface but was stopped at 200 feet( 61 m) because the surface support team noticed that the chamber was not pressurise. There was a leak that would subject both divers to severe bends or air embolism if the ascent continued.

Safety divers Anderson and Whittaker were called into action, to go down and look for leaks. Anderson checked everything but found nothing. They came back to the surface to report. Al Tillman, who was on the support team, told Anderson that the buzzer continues to leak. At this point it was noticed that Whittaker had inflated his life vest and had blood in his mask. He was ordered out of the water. Anderson, meanwhile, prepared
to dive again.

Instead of leaving the water, Whittaker took his diving knife, slashed his vest to deflate it, and dived with Anderson back to the buzzer. This time, Anderson closely inspected the bottom hatch of the Atlantis where he discovered a small trail of bubbles escaping and the same reasons for it: the tip of a swimming fin was visible and just enough to prevent a proper hatch seal. He motioned to Whittaker for his knife and used the blade to push the blockage clear of the seal. The hatch shut completely, but the seal continued to leak so Anderson pulled down on the hatch and motioned for Whittaker to surface and signal for the chamber ascent to continue. He planned to ascend with the buzzer ensuring the hatch remained sealed.A

Whittaker signalled that he understood and began his swim to the surface. Anderson waited and waited, his( early) decompression meter entering the red zone. Finally, he had to leave.A

The minute he surfaced, a crewman asked, aWhereas Chris? a

Whittaker was never seen again.

Meanwhile, the Atlantis leak stopped due to inside/ outside pressure differential shiftings. The chamber continued on its route to the surface, and Keller regained consciousness. Watching that Small had not opened his faceplate, Keller did so and began an intensive resuscitation attempt on the unconscious diver. But Small was dead by the time they got to the surface. Keller suffered no ill effects.

The dive was a paradox. A man had descended to 1,000 feet( 305 m) successfully, proving that the mysterious mixture of gases had worked, but two men had died. No one knew whether to cheer or scream. Some press reports referred to Keller as Hannes Killer, while others denounced him for not sharing his secret gases and dive formula with the scientific community. But soon after the diving Buhlmann had published the details of Kelleras dive, although few people had read that highly technical report; scientific papers tend to circulate merely among scientists who know where to find them.

The diving community dismissed everything and called Keller a hero. So did the Swiss.

The book on Keller was never finished because Dick felt he could not sort out the facts of the dive without question.

Some people may not understand a intellect that entertains this kind of danger, though most would agree it takes a person of extraordinary will to live life to the fullest, risking failure and even demise. Keller told me once, aI want to have an interesting life, thatas what I want. I am the man looking for the right mix of all things to get me into the depth of life … so at the end I can say it was worthwhile.aA

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