A catastrophic episode that began with an F/A-18 Super Hornet blowing off the deck of the carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea came to a conclusion earlier this month when the Navy announced that its highly specialized diving and salvage unit had successfully recovered the fighter jet.
The $67 million aircraft, assigned to Carrier Air Wing 1, took a swim July 8 due to “unexpected heavy weather,” according to Navy officials. Losing a valuable fighter to the ocean is already a bad day; but it also necessitates a time-consuming and expensive recovery mission. The Super Hornet may not be stealthy and packed with privileged new technology like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – the Navy had to recover one of those from the Philippine Sea back in March – but it still contains equipment and information the military wants to keep out of enemy hands.
It took the service nearly a month to salvage the F/A-18 from a depth of 9,500 feet, nearly two miles below the surface. According to an official release, recovery efforts involved the CURV-21 remotely operated dive vehicle, the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving unit (SUPSALV) out of Naval Sea Systems Command, and the Navy’s Europe-focused Task Force 68. The multi-purpose construction vessel Everest, sailing under the flag of the Bahamas, also supported the mission.
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An ice-class offshore supply ship and dive vessel, the Everest also supported an Australian research trip to Antarctica in 2021. This time, the vessel served as the transport platform for Navy divers and equipment. While the Navy has lots of ships, SUPSALV tends to use commercial platforms for its recovery and salvage efforts. The F-35 recovery effort in March was launched from the offshore dive vessel Picasso, another Bahamas-flagged ship out of Singapore.
The Navy used to have a Diver class of salvage ships for just such missions, but the last of them was decommissioned in 1979. Today, just two salvage ships remain active: the Salvage-class USNS Grasp and USNS Salvor. Both ended their commissioned service in the early 2000s and were transferred to Military Sealift Command. So the Navy outsources its salvage platforms these days.
In addition to aircraft and personnel recovery, SUPSALV can be deployed in response to pollution emergencies, such as hazardous material or oil spills. According to a 2015 unit presentation, SUPSALV responds to an average of nine emergency events per year, plus 20 calls for ship salvage, towing, and heavy lift.
Among SUPSALV response efforts highlighted in that presentation were: the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012; search-and-rescue for a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier that went down in the Gulf of Aden in 2011; the 2013 grounding of the mine countermeasures ship Guardian in the Sulu Sea; and the recovery of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crane from the bottom of Kaw Lake, Oklahoma by 10 Navy divers in 2011.
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Farther back in time, SUPSALV responded to the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in 2007, which left 13 dead and 145 injured, by conducting search and recovery for victims.
After the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, SUPSALV deployed a nearly unprecedented response that highlighted the unit’s engineering expertise as well as its technical proficiency. Over the course of five months, almost 140 people from the unit placed 63,200 feet of oil containment boom across three states in the gulf of Mexico; manned 18 oil skimmer vessels to clean up water near shorelines; supported oil well engineering at BP’s Houston headquarters; and conducted underwater surveys of the drilling platform using remotely operated dive vessels. According to Navy statistics, teams with the unit recovered more than 23,000 oil barrels.
“Our crews worked exhaustively for months, in the extreme heat that is typical of summer in the Gulf Coast,” Capt. Patrick Keenan, then director of Ocean Engineering, wrote in a November 2011 report. “The SUPSALV team’s work contributed significantly to securing the leak, protecting the Gulf’s waters, and assisting in the investigation of the cause of the tragedy.”
The physical requirements for Navy divers are almost as stringent as those for SEALs. To qualify, candidates must complete a 500-yard swim in 12 minutes and 30 seconds; complete at least 50 push-ups in two minutes; do at least 50 curl-ups in two minutes; complete at least six pull-ups; and finish a 1.5-mile run in 12 minutes and 30 seconds.
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SUPSALV’s submersible vehicles
But the capability that allows the Navy to dive to the bottom of the ocean almost anywhere in the world is found in SUPSALV’s submersible vehicles. The unit says it can conduct salvage and recovery missions at depths of up to 20,000 feet, which leaves only small spots of the ocean – mainly east of Japan in the Pacific – out of reach.
For depths of up to 8,000 feet, the Navy uses a 4,100-pound remotely operated submersible known as the Deep Drone 8,000 that uses electric and hydraulic thrusters and can be loaded up with tool packages for search or salvage missions. The 9×6-foot robot can also identify objects at distances of 2,000 with built-in sonar.
For missions beyond 8,000 feet, SUPSALV brings out the big guns, namely the CURV-21 (Cable-controlled Undersea Recovery Vehicle), a 6,400-pound remotely operated vehicle that can handle the crushing pressure of up to 20,000 feet of seawater. The vehicle uses one fiber-optic umbilical cable for operator control. The very first iteration of CURV proved its worth in 1966, helping to recover an accidentally dropped hydrogen bomb from a depth of 2,900 feet in the Mediterranean Sea.
Last year, CURV-21 was pushed to nearly the extreme limits of its capability when it recovered a Navy MH-60S Seahawk helicopter from a depth of 19,075 feet in the Pacific ocean off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. The recovery set a new SUPSALV record, and Navy officials said it allowed the service to secure flight data that may help determine the cause of the crash. In that case, the five-member crew survived, but the source of the mishap was not immediately clear.
As the Navy and Marine Corps emphasize missions in the Pacific, SUPSALV is being called on to conduct more deep-water recovery operations. The unit had set the previous deep-dive record in June 2019, when it pulled a C-2A Greyhound carrier onboard delivery aircraft out of the Philippine Sea from a depth of 18,500 feet. In the future, it may have to surpass it.
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