UCT 1 on the Dive Side

Story courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera

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BU1 Carlos Hernandez, UCT 1, aboard USNS Apache (T-ATF-172), conducts structural and environmental survey of Tactical Air Combat Training System (TACTS) towers for future demolition operations. Photo by MC2 Nicholas Tenorio

The smell of diesel fuel lingers in the wet, pre-dawn air on the weather deck of the USNS Apache (T-ATF-172). The humming melody of the ship’s engine is accompanied by the hiss of SCUBA bottles being charged and the staccato rhythm of chains being taken off 10-foot-tall steel storage boxes. The divers of Underwater Construction Team (UCT) 1, shout a chorus of “Bleeding down!” and “Charging!” as a safety precaution when preparing their diving equipment.

Several miles off the coast of Georgia, a collection of eight towers, bone-yellow and weathered from the constant swells of the sea, stand in solitude like skeletal sentries. Each one of the now- defunct Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System (TACTS) towers is equipped with a helicopter pad and up to four main support pilings, each one stretching roughly more than 180 feet high.

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Seabee divers from UCT 1 prepare their dive side to conduct structural and environmental surveys of Tactical Air Combat Training System (TACTS) towers for future demolition operations.  Photo by MC2 Nicholas Tenorio

”They served as training aids for aircrews,” said Equipment Operator 1st Class Matthew Bobinchak, UCT 1, project crew leader for the mission. “That technology is now obsolete and we’re looking at removing them.”

UCT 1 traverses a 40-hour cruise through rough seas to assess the towers’ structural integrity and determine a course of action for the removal of the structures.

“The overall goal of this mission is to conduct an inspection of the TACTS Towers in regards to future operations of demolishing and removing them,” Bobinchak said.

Constant exposure to the ocean has degraded the structures’ ability to safely be repaired and is a potential danger to seagoing vessels.

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Seabee divers from UCT 1, aboard USNS Apache (T-ATF-172), conduct structural and environmental survey of Tactical Air Combat Training System (TACTS) towers for future demolition operations.  Photo by MC2 Nicholas Tenorio

“Looks like this one has seen better days,” said Lt. Thomas Hallam, executive officer, UCT 1. “[The towers] are functionally obsolete and they’ve become a hazard to navigation.”

Demolishing a large structure comes with its fair share of risks and challenges – potentially deadly factors when 120 feet of water, currents and swells are added to the mix. UCT 1 integrates working knowledge and training into the daily routine to mitigate these deadly factors.

According to Construction Mechanic 1st Class Brandon Burrow, UCT 1 must constantly train to provide emergency care for a dive-related casualty during a project of such magnitude. Arterial gas embolism and decompression sickness are two of the primary safety concerns. However, the team has to be prepared at a moment’s notice to respond to any life-threatening situation.

“Demolition can be a very risky operation when dealing with structures that large,” said Hallam. “This is a very remote site. We’re about 40 or 50 miles off the coast of Georgia. We have to bring all of our emergency medical gear with us. We have two recompression chambers. We’re very cautious of our dive plans whether it’s the swells, current or the depth.”

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Seabee divers from UCT 1 set up a decompression chamber in preparation for conducting a structural and environmental survey of Tactical Air Combat Training System (TACTS) towers for future demolition operations. TACTS towers were constructed in 1987 to provide aircrew training and performance evaluation in air-to-air combat, but are now functionally obsolete. Photo by MC3 Tyler N. Thompson

As responsible stewards of the sea, UCT 1 remains committed to protecting the environment in addition to being cautious with their dive plans. The marine life is assessed before demolition takes place. If the project goes forth, the structure is either recycled or converted to an artificial reef for marine life.

“We’ve come here ready for the unknown. No one has ever dove on these towers so no one really knows what’s down there,” says Hallam. “But we are prepared to overcome any obstacle.”

UCT 1 provides responsive inshore and ocean underwater construction, inspection, repair and maintenance to ocean facilities for Navy, Marine Corps and joint forces engaged in military operations.

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Seabee divers from UCT 1 run a casualty diver drill in preparation for conducting a structural and environmental survey of Tactical Air Combat Training System (TACTS) towers for future demolition operations. Photo by MC3 Tyler N. Thompson

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