IDA 59 Russian Rebreather and the link to radioactive chip shops!






I bought this Russian made IDA59 rebreather a few weeks ago on the internet. It caught my eye because it was bundled together with the highly unusual and original submarine escape suit. After doing some homework I found that this rebreather was used on the deepest ever real life submarine escape in July of 1989. The stricken sub had caught fire and sunk taking with it almost the entire crew. Six officers rode the emergency escape pod up from over 600 metres deep wearing the IDA59 units. When the pod reached the surface, rough seas caused it to fall over and it sunk back down. Only Warrant Officer Slyusarenko survived the deep escape. Before this tragedy the submarine was a top secret prototype powered by two hybrid nuclear reactors and sported a completely titanium hull. Its name was Komsomolets which means “member of the young communist league”. This submarine was much faster and capable of diving to deeper depths than anything in the US arsenal at the time. The Komsomolets currently sits broken in the Barents Sea over 1 mile beneath the surface. Shortly, everybody will know the name of this sub as it becomes possibly the worst environmental disaster the world has ever known. The Plutonium warheads and reactors it harbours will eventually leak catastrophically. The fishing industry in the arctic hemisphere will be decimated if the nasty stuff hits the fan. Even better, there are five other atomic powered submarines lying crippled and dissolving in deep water around the world.. Glow in the Dark fish and chips will be the least of our concerns! Experts that studied this wreck site initially thought that the immensely strong Titanium hull would protect the fish from fallout for ever, but sadly this will not be the case. The reason ironically lies in the construction of the submarine itself. Steel components and alloys based on magnesium and aluminium corrode at enormous speeds in the presence of titanium. The most recent studies show enormous hull breaches already…oops!


The IDA59 is a closed circuit Trimix rebreather with a depth limitation of just 300metres! Made in 1960 the pint sized unit is capable of adjusting gas flow rates automatically while descending and ascending without any electronics. The user manual states that non strenuous work can be achieved down to 90metres without taking any additional tanks. It would take a braver man than I to go deeper than 10metres with it without taking numerous bailout bottles! Its dinky scrubber canister has an apparent duration of 2.5 hours, although I think the actual term the manual uses was Life Expectancy. Russian rebreathers are known to use a binary scrubber material called 03, this super oxide compound actually produces oxygen as it absorbs exhaled carbon dioxide. That means that if you wanted to add some jalapenos to your life you don’t need to fill the oxygen bottle at all. Unfortunately if this chemical gets wet, the by product is so caustic that it would burn through glass. The recent fire aboard the MIR space station was started by the mishandling of this highly reactive compound.


On testing the unit, you immediately notice that only vertical swimming is possible, the horse collar inhalation bag is placed in such a way that horizontal movement is completely impossible unless you wear heavy anvil style earrings. The trimix supply tanks on this little gem are small enough that you can refill them, even with pure helium for under a fiver, the cost savings are enormous. The money I have saved this week alone has paid for a new hanky sized base jumping parachute and a 220 hp Suzuki Slingshot race bike. The escape apparatus comes with a retro looking full face mask that screws directly to the breathing loop. The mask even has a wiper blade that can be activated externally to clean a fogged up face plate. Although it looks a bit Heath Robinson, it works very effectively. The breathing valve or DSV (Dive Surface Valve) has a setting that allows direct atmospheric air breathing even with the face mask on. The unit is extremely robust and all the metal work is immaculate even though over forty years old.  A close up of the DSV with the hoses removed shows the Russian version of a mushroom valve. In a western unit, these critical components are made of rubber and shrivel to useless after a seasons diving, the soviet design is a sprung piece of finely milled MICA glass plate. This technique for directing airflow would have been prohibitively expensive, but utterly reliable and crafted by top engineers from the cold war era.


Today I passed on wearing the wiper mask in favour of wearing the accompanying escape outfit replete with monkey boy gimp hood. Wearing the orange escape suit with integrated goggles would allow entry to any Conservative MP gentleman’s club, guaranteed. There is no need for black plastic bags or oranges wrapped with electrical flex with this set up at all. The baggy suit is designed for quick donning, the kind of quick you need when you are on a smoked filled, rapidly sinking submarine. Entry is achieved through a simple draw string closed front access panel, the suit is complete with 3 finger gloves and would fit many different body types. Pulling the Gimp hood over last, completes the ensemble. I tried the suit for the first time in Lake Starnberg which is known locally as the house reef of Munich, Germany. The water temperature was a Baltic seven degrees and simulated conditions of a submarine escape at 300metres quite realistically. On the right leg of the suit are two mini air tanks, akin to large soda stream cartridges. The purpose of these was to give positive buoyancy to the suit wearer once outside the crippled submarine. The whole outfit including the rebreather is slim enough to allow escape even through the torpedo tubes, unless you are a salad dodger of course. Ordinarily I would have tested this emergency buoyancy devices strapped to my thigh. The book of words stated that ascent speeds of 3 metres per second or 180 metres a minute were easily achievable. I had only come up this fast before while attempting to slow down open water students during ascent training.


Putting on all this equipment was hot and hungry work, it was time for lunch. Escaping submariners would have been faced with the identical dilemma as myself today, how to eat lunch through an orifice no wider than a pound coin? Someone with a college degree would have bought soup and a straw to slurp it through, or even Smarties. All I could manage for sustenance was a banana. Peeling the banana with Bart Simpson fingers was difficult enough, pushing it through the mouth hole gave me flashbacks to the Pulp Fiction movie scene where Zed wakes up his leather clad buddy. After a disappointing and messy feed, it was time to road test the escape suit. I gingerly shuffled through the trees that led to the freezing lake. The suit was made of an extremely thin material and I had to put my chunkiest under suit on underneath to keep the cold out. Every submariner would be issued with such an escape suit. It was condom thin because it had to roll up small enough to fit into the cramp crew quarters. Getting waist deep into the frigid lake, I could feel my left leg rapidly becoming at one with the water and realised the suit had a hole in it. A quick inspection found a thorn stuck through the boot of the suit. I had walked next to some Holly bushes to get to the waters edge and Mother Nature had dealt the suit a kidney punch. The insides of Russian submarines must be very smooth places if this monkey suit can be punctured by a prickle bush.  I conceded defeat and put my regular otter dry suit back on and went for a dive just using the rebreather.


 Considering the age of the IDA59 rebreather, it is a truly remarkable piece of engineering. The materials used in its construction will likely last another forty years. Quite impressive when you consider modern scuba equipment is often broken or useless after just forty dives. The escape suit was never really designed for bimbles in a lake or cruising a reef, but would definitely take pride of place in any diving equipment collection. You can follow the fate of the Komsomolets submarine with its Plutonium tipped torpedoes and leaking nuclear reactors at a fish and chip shop near you, that’s if the mad cow burgers or red food dyes don’t get you first!






 Wheres the Komsomolets now? - Project 685 Plavnik

The Project 685 was an advanced submarine developed to test advanced submarine technologies. The submarine could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The design was initially developed in the 1960s, but the first unit was not laid down at Severodvinsk until 22 April 1978. The submarine K-278 Komsomolets ["member of the Young Communist League"] was launched on 09 May 1983 and commissioned in late 1984. The submarine Komsomolets was built as an experimental vessel, and was the only one of its class to enter service. The construction of one additional submarine was reported started in Severodvinsk, but work was halted prior to its completion.

The hull was of double-hull configuration, divided into seven compartments: Torpedo room, Accommodations, Control room, Reactor compartment, Electrical motors, Turbines and Auxiliary mechanisms. The inner pressure hull was titanium, light and strong, making her the world's deepest diving submarine, and her operating depth below 3,000 feet was far below that of the best American submarines. A personnel rescue sphere was fitted in the sail to enable the crew to escape in the event of an underwater emergency. According to Western intelligence estimates, the Mike was powered by a pair of liquid-metal/lead-bismuth reactors, although the Soviet Union subsequently disclosed that the submarine used a single pressurized-water reactor of conventional design. This resulted in subsequent lower estimates for the boat's maximum speed.

On 07 April 1989, while the Komsomolets was submerged at a depth of 500-1,250 feet a fire erupted in the aft compartment when a high-pressure air line connecting to main ballast tanks allowing the submarine to control its depth bursts a seal. A spray of oil hit a hot surface, and a flash fire began which soon The fire spread through cableways despite closed hatches. The emergency system to protect the nuclear reactors from overload kicked in, and the propeller shaft stopped. Within minutes electrical problems were reported all over the submarine, and many security systems failed. The boat managed to surface eleven minutes after discovery of the fire, but the rupture in the main compressed air system fed the fire further. The crew fought the fire for several hours before the submarine flooded and sank. As she sank, the commanding officer and four others entered the escape pod, but it was partially flooded and filled with toxic gas, and only one of the five survived the ascent to the surface. Small rafts were dropped from the rescue aircraft, but there were not enough for the 50 men in the water. Of the 69 crew members, 42 were killed in the accident, most dying in the water of hypothermia [at 36° F the water was cold enough to kill them in 15 minutes].

The Komsomolets sank 180 km southeast of Bear Island off the coast of Norway in 1,500-1,700 meters of water. The Komsomolets was carrying two nuclear torpedoes [along with eight conventional torpedoes] when she sank. Two investigations, one by a state commission and another conducted independently, failed to fully account for the magnitude of the accident, though the independent commission suggested that Komsomolets had construction flaws. Others have claimed that the crew was not properly trained to operate the submarine's equipment. The Norwegians claimed they could have reached the scene by air or surface two hours before the submarine sank.

The site of the accident is one of the richest fishing areas in the world, and the possible leakage of radioactive material could jeopardize the local fisheries, valued at billions of dollars annually. Two months after the sinking, the oceanographic rescue ship Akademik Mstislav Keldysh using submersibles found Komsomolets a mile down. In August of 1991, Keldysh returned to the scene and examination of the wreck in May 1992 revealed cracks along the entire length of the titanium hull, some of which were of 30-40 centimetres wide, as well as possible breaches in the primary coolant circuit that could permit fission products to leach out into sea water. As of early 1993 Russian officials maintained that leaks were "insignificant" and posed no threat to the environment. Results of the August 1993 survey suggested that waters at the site were not mixing vertically, and thus the sea life in the area was not being rapidly contaminated. The 1993 survey also revealed a hole over 20 feet wide blown in the forward torpedo compartment.

Several underwater submersible missions to the site revealed that sea water was corroding the casings of the warheads and the hull of the submarine, a process accelerated by the rapidly shifting currents. Concern was expressed that radiation could leak from missiles and contaminate a large area because of the aperiodically high (up to 1.5 m/sec) currents in the area. The Radioactivity and Environmental Security in the Oceans Conference at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on June 7-9, 1993 considered the environmental monitoring program on the Komsomolets submarine. An expedition during the summer of 1994 revealed some plutonium leakage from one of the sub's two nuclear-tipped torpedoes. The expedition was successful in sealing some of the holes in the submarine's hull.

The cost of raising the submarine was estimated at about of $1 billion, which would entail the hazard that the submarine hull might not remain intact during the operation. An alternative plan was to encase the submarine by hermetically sealing it with a jelly-like material. On 24 June 1995 work began on sealing parts of the hull, and the objective was achieved at the end of July 1996. The hull was said to be safe for at least 20 to 30 more years. As of the late 1990s examinations of the area where the sub sank measured only small leaks of radioactivity from the wreck.



Designer: N.A. Klimov and J.N. Karmilitsin, SKB-18 (Rubin)
Displacement (tons): 4,400-5,750 tons surface
6,400-8,000 tons submerged
Speed (kts): 14 knots surfaced
36-38 submerged [initial US estimates]
26-30 knots submerged [later estimates]
Endurance 4,500 full power hours
50 days stores endurance
Operating Depth: 3,300 feet Maximum Safe Depth
4,100 feet Never Exceed Depth
5,000 feet Crush Depth
Dimensions (m): 117.5 [110-120] meters long
10.7 [11-12] meters beam
8-9 meters draft
Propulsion: 1 190 MWt OK-650 b-3 pressurised water reactor
2 steam turbines 43-47,000 shp
1 7-blade propeller
Crew: 64-68 (29-32 officers + 21 warrants + 15 enlisted)
  • 2 - SS-N-15 Starfish RPK-2 Viyoga
  • ? - SS-N-16 Stallion
  • Torpedoes: 6 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes (bow)
  • 1 Snoop Head surface search radar
  • Shark Gill low-frequency active sonar
  • Bald Eagle EW

    Class Listing

    Unit Shipyard Fleet Chronology Notes
    # number Name Laid Down Launched Comm. Stricken
    1 K-278 Komsomolets SY 402 NOR 04/22/1978 05/09/1983 12/31/1984 1989 10/1988 named
    04/07/1989 lost
    2     SY 402           construction halted