Navy Takes Plunge on Diver’s Device : Canisters of Spare Air to Fly With Helicopters

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Times Staff Writer

Motorists carry spare tires, car mechanics stock spare parts, and now U. S. Navy helicopter crewmen will store a canister of Spare Air, a miniature air tank that the Navy sees as a potential lifesaver in helicopter crashes at sea.

The self-contained, 13-inch-high and 2-inch-thick device is the invention of Huntington Beach resident Larry Williamson, who one winter day nine years ago went diving for lobster off Santa Catalina Island and ran out of air at a depth of 140 feet.

Williamson blacked out underwater but was buoyed to the surface by an inflatable life vest.


‘One Breath of Air’

The near-drowning prompted Williamson to design a compact air tank that can provide the equivalent of as many as 30 breaths above water. “I would have given my arm for one breath of air at the time” of his accident, the former aerospace machinist said.

According to Navy safety records, 36 passengers and crewmen died in 12 Navy helicopter crashes at sea in 1985. Thirty-nine survived.

“The Navy had been looking for a device with this type of capability for a long time,” said Lt. Tim Goodwin, a project manager with the Navy’s Crew Systems Division. But officials in Washington were unaware of Williamson’s product until they discovered that helicopter crews stationed at Marine air bases in El Toro and Tustin were buying Spare Air canisters with their own money at local diving-gear shops.

$1.3-Million Contract

Now, after two years of testing Spare Air against a Coast Guard-designed emergency air device, the Navy has agreed to a $1.3-million contract to buy 8,200 of Williamson’s tanks as a sort of “underwater parachute” for helicopter crewmen. Once a helicopter hits the water, “it sinks like an anchor,” Williamson said.

Goodwin, who ordered the miniature air tanks through the Naval Air Systems Command in Washington, explained that the weight of a helicopter’s overhead engine and rotor causes the aircraft to roll upside down in the water and “sink very quickly.”

Williamson and his partner, the management consulting firm of Rosenberg Solomon in Newport Beach, already have shipped 1,400 units of Spare Air to naval bases in California and on the East Coast.


Time to Escape

The Navy expects Spare Air to provide crewmen who stow the 22-ounce tanks in their survival vests with about two minutes of breathing time to escape from helicopters downed in water, Goodwin said.

Spare Air is the only product Williamson’s company, Submersible Systems Inc., manufactures. But, since signing the Navy contract, the firm has received inquiries from several foreign naval forces and from diving-equipment distributors in Canada, Japan and Malaysia, part-owner Nathan Rosenberg said.

The company sold an average of 312 tanks a month to local diving shops during the last quarter ended Sept. 30 for a suggested retail price of $195, Rosenberg said. At National Scuba in Huntington Beach, where the Spare Air unit is priced at $154, store manager Brian Redlinger said he sells about two or three tanks a month. But, he said, he believes the product “is just catching on.”