It all started one fine winter morning in Berlin where I was working at the time on a huge underwater concrete construction where I was doing the night shift. I had just fallen asleep when the hotel phone rang.
While gasping on the bastard who did not respect my sleep, I picked up and said:
- Hello Was Wollen Sie.
At the other end of the line, I immediately recognized the voice of my big boss Luc.
Hey why is he calling me so early?
- Ah hello Francis, I hope I do not wake up?
- No okay, what do you want?
- Well you have to phone Comex as soon as possible because they need a specialist in explosives for a work in French Guiana.
On hearing these words Guiana and Explosives my heart began to beat faster.
- Of course I'll call them; besides what do you wait to hang up.
While I was forming the number of the big house in Marseille, I told myself that my boss was certainly misunderstood because to my knowledge, there was no oil in Guyana so I was wondering what a company for which I had worked for many years could do there.
I would not have to wait long to find out.
- Allo Patricia, yes Francis here, it seems that I have to call you for something special?
- Ah hello Francis. You're okay? Yes, we actually seek a superintendent specialized in explosives and as it does not grow on trees here, we thought of you for a job in Guyana.
- But there is no oil in Guyana I replied, then what is this for?
- No there is no oil but there are rockets.
And that's how I learned that the mission they wanted to give me was the recovery at sea of the new Ariane 5 solid boosters (EAPs) on behalf of CNES and as these boosters contained explosives destruction devices, the customer required a guy specialized with this type of stuff.
It did not cost me more than 2 seconds to accept the mission and sorry for my loved one who had to understand that I could not let this go. Moreover, it was now two years since I had left the offshore for her so she had to let me go and finish my career abroad in beauty.
As I said, the Comex contract consisted to recover at sea off Kourou various boosters from the new series of Ariane 5 in order to analyze the structure of the metal.
The entire recovery procedure had been drafted and developed during long months by a German consulting firm and now they had arrived in the final phase of study and asked me to participate in the final preparatory meetings.
The first Ariane flight 501 was scheduled for June and then a full dive team and I plus a ton of equipment were mobilized aboard the Amphitrite an Italian ship whose crew and her Captain denoted a bit with the seriousness of the mission.
A few days before the launch, the ship sailed and began waiting for recovery. Unfortunately as everyone remembers, on June 4 the rocket exploded shortly after launch and off course everyone went home earlier than expected.
Ditto for the flight A502. The launch was successful, but this time the recovery parachutes did not open and the two boosters crashed at sea.
The A503 flight was scheduled for October 98 and again the whole team mobilized this time on the Neftegas 66 a Russian ship.
On October 19, the ship left the port of Kourou to get in the Atlantic Ocean at some 540 km east of Guyana.
The ship waiting position was in an alleged drop area that had a length of about 25 km and a width of 15 km. As the exact point of impact of the two boosters in this area could not be determined accurately, the ship opted to put herself at the center of the area by saying that statistically speaking this was there that the risk was the lowest to receive the boosters on our heads.
Ariane 503 was successfully launched October 21 and after only a few minutes the drag of the two propellant machines appeared high in the sky.
Very quickly however a problem happened to one of them as a kind of explosion conjured a white plume in the sky.
While the high speed fall was followed and filmed by a reconnaissance plane until the booster crashed violently into the sea at a few kilometers of the boat.
The second booster also continued his vertiginous fall towards the sea, but all of a sudden, the various braking parachutes were opened as planned and thus enabled the craft to land into the water more or less smoothly.
- Hurrah! Hurrah! On board shouts of joy were listened.
This time we could start the mission.
The boat immediately headed to the falling point and once there one could see that the EAP floated almost vertically in the water a bit like a fishing cap.
Very soon a boat was put in the water and I could go and check the status of the explosives strips and look that there was no risk for my guys.
As everything was normal, we could immediately start the first part of the procedure which was to secure the booster with some huge balloons filled with air and which function was to keep it afloat during the night if by chance a problem appeared.
The following morning, big surprise, all the balloons were gone but EAP was still floating in the same position as the previous day.
Like we were very far from the coast it was not possible that the floats were stolen. So the only plausible explanation was that they had come off because of the heavy swell motions.
Never mind, we now had to recover the huge parachutes that were still attached to the nose of the booster but dragged under water.
This was rather difficult because the canopy of the main parachute was also equipped with pyro release charges designed to ensure openness.
In principle, all these charges were supposed to have worked, but as nothing was 100% certain we had to work carefully.
Following the working procedure, if we except for the aforementioned risk and the danger to pull the parachutes in the boat’s propellers nothing else were in principle to fear.
All wrong: we had barely begun to pull on the line to lift the parachutes that the booster leaned suddenly forward and laid down on the surface of the water.
- HELL, IT IS NOT POSSIBLE WE ARE GOING TO LOOSE IT!
No one knew how to react because this had not been foreseen in the recovery scenario.
Then after a minute or two of anxiety we could see that the machine remained in the same position and immediately hope returned. Immediately order was given to prepare a hawser to try to attach it somewhere on the nose to secure it.
But while we were preparing for this maneuver the booster slowly resumed itself vertically under the bewildered eyes of all.
As everything seemed under control, the project engineer decided not to touch anything and immediately called the various officials for a working meeting to determine what would now be the follow-up to the program.
Given the risk of capsizing, it was agreed to scratch the removal and the recovery of the parachutes from the procedure.
Instead, it was decided to cut the straps of the parachute and then let them sink to the bottom, which was about 4000 meters below.
That day, the sea was pretty rough and waves of 3 meters were present which made the cutting operation of the Kevlar straps rather complicated.
But finally, half an hour later, the parachutes went to the bottom.
Then stand-by weather to see the evolution of the sea state.
The next day no change in the sea state but we could see that some of the ring-joints that connected the several segments from the EAP cylinder began to get loose.
A dive was quickly organized in order to see what was happening under water. The result of the inspection was not very good because it showed that several rivets were already missing.
These had probably left their position following the stresses experienced by the huge structure. Immediately the Russian mechanic aboard was enlisted to make a bunch of new pieces that would replace the missing rivets. The missing rivets were quickly replaced in the empty holes but, as was to be expected with the divers, the remaining spare rivets were also used to replace those still in place which allowed us to obtain some memories of this campaign.
In principle, the next step of the working procedure was to introduce compressed air inside the cylinder in order to remove water and then introduce an IFD (inflated floating device) therein.
This piece that looked like a huge suppository 5 m long had to be brought by divers under the submerged nozzle at about thirty meters deep, and then be lift up by a series of rather delicate handling in the belly of the EAP where it would eventually be inflated to form a tight plug.
This maneuver had obviously been successfully tested by the research department, but the conditions of the test were not quite the same as here.
The test had been done in a lake where it was dead calm which was far from the 2 to 3 m continuous swell we had here.
October 27 still no improvement in sight. Worse, because of sea currents, we had already derived more than 500 km and we were now at about one thousand kilometers from the base and something had to be done.
The project engineer insisted to install his baby (IFD) while I categorically refused to do so explaining that we were well beyond the authorized wave heights, and that I had no desire to crush one of my divers between the IFD and booster.
Of course, on board a certain tension began to be felt between the different stakeholders.
Once again, I suggested as I had already done a few days earlier to just set a hawser around the booster and towed it at low speed to Kourou. But the CNES officials and research department feared that doing so would prematurely detonate the destruction strips.
Finally I managed to get them to understand that the risk was negligible and finally after a long discussion everyone on board was now aware that this was the only remaining solution to try to bring this huge cylinder to land.
The hawser was smoothly fixed around the booster by the divers and finally the Neftegas 66 switched his engines on and the low-speed towing began.
The first hours were of course quite stressful because I had raised the suggestion to do so but I did not know at all how the booster would react at the end of its tow line.
But all went well.
My periodic inspections showed that the explosives were free from stress and towing continued for 8 days.
During the trip we could observe that the structure kept an angle varying between 10 and 30 °.
This was unfortunately a bad position because it would not allow to cross the shallow Strait situated between the salute islands and the port of Pariacabo. So on November the fourth we again stopped the ship and thanks to the scientific calculations of the engineer we trained for the next two days to lay this huge tube flat on the water and then straighten it again.
The flat position seemed to suit the passage of the final kilometers, but to ensure the manoeuver the engineer decided that the craft's ass had to be closed.
To do so, he decided to dismantle the huge bag being inside the IFD and introduce it into the booster nozzle.
This was easier said than done because the long bag was filled with a thin film coat of air and divers were unable to make it sink.
Worse yet, we had to handle the bag with extreme caution because it was quite fragile.
In short at the end of the day the membrane was still not in place and our engineer really started to get on our nerves by wanting us to do so shit maneuver.
The atmosphere was explosive and I felt that punches were going to get lost.
Result for the third time in my career I decided to yell at a supervisor and shouted to him:
- ALEXANDRE FUCK-OFF, ENOUGH BULLSHIT FOR TODAY.
As he was not used to see me like that he realized there was a problem and nodded.
The bag was brought back on board and we stopped the working day.
Next morning, new briefing where it was decided to replace the IFD bag by one of the 10 T inflatable balloon we still had on board.
It was put in place on November 7 and by the time we celebrated the success of the operation, the booster suddenly began to nosedive and start to sink.
The nose went deeper and deeper and then suddenly the cylinder plunged like a whale.
- OH NO FUCKING HELL ALL THIS WORK FOR NOTHING - SHIT!
Then suddenly as everyone thought the booster was lost for good, the descent stopped.
- It is not possible my heart will not hold it.
The engine was there floating upside down in a vertical position with only 5 meters to go before being fully submerged.
But now I was certain we were going to bring the beast at home because it really did not feel like sinking.
Of course as you might suppose the big chief summoned his staff to analyze the cause of the incident. After much discussion we concluded that near sinking was probably due to a water leak around the balloon we had to install.
We now had to again face a scenario not foreseen in the recovery manual. How to return a spacecraft floating upside down in the Atlantic Ocean? After several brain storming hours during which our different brains began to smoke we came to the conclusion that it was necessary to cautiously pump the water that was now in the tube.
But the risk was obviously great to see the booster fill up again as soon as he falls flat on the water. So to avoid this, quite simple, we would clog the opening of the nozzle with a metal plate only pierced by a few vents to ensure the passage of some cables and pumping hose.
Not difficult, that was easy to say, because we had to get on the rocket, whose ass was still between 5 and 7 meters above the surface and here no question of installing a ladder in the zodiac as we would break our neck because of the swell.
Again, someone had a brilliant idea:
- Why don’t we storm it with a grapple and climbing ropes?
Here, the idea was found, it remained only to prepare the necessary materials and forward it from Kourou.
Obviously, the preparation of this special order would not be done in a few hours. Thus, to lower the stress and the tension of the last hours, the project manager decided to organize a small break under the form of an evening on land.
We were only a few hours away from the base and thanks to the sending of a speedboat the entire dive crew disembarked for the Salute Islands where a helicopter shuttle was organized to bring us to Kourou.
There, hotel rooms had been retained so that we could spend a quite night.
Despite the excellent meal we had not yet fully recovered from all our emotions, so as it should be expected, the only solution that was offered to us if we did not want to sink into depression was to end the evening in a nightclub.
It was a night to remember. One more time my innate gift for the dance (that I doubtless hold of my old mom) allowed me to let off steam at the rate of the tropical music.
The next day was harder, because for the first time, I could now feel the first disadvantages of my growing age. Fortunately my hangover lasted only a short time and back on board I was again ready to work.
All the requested material had arrived and it only remained us to storm the booster.
The setting up of the small pump and the blanking of the nozzle passed without problem and after some hours of pumping, the booster slowly returned to its normal position.
Then through some additional manipulations we were ready for the final towing to the Islands where we were eagerly awaited.
Once on-the-spot with our trophy, our boat put herself at anchor while waiting for the arrival of the HENARES. It was indeed this local barge which had to ensure the final towing to the port.
On the 14 November, all was ready, we had installed an air back up hose in the ass of the booster to if necessary blow air in his belly and so keep him in a flat position and we only had to receive permission from the port authorities to get under way.
But as the time passed and no order arrived from shore, we decided nevertheless to already set off for the pass because the passage had to be done at high tide so be sure to have enough water under the barge.
We were now about halfway into the channel when suddenly an incongruous order came on the radio.
- Henares! Henares! Henares! Here the captaincy.
- What are you doing in the middle of the pass?
- I order you to turn back and return to your starting point.
On board, everyone thought it was a joke. Nobody could have imagined that so a silly order could be given.
- Henares! Confirm that you received the order.
The Captain of the barge immediately replied:
- Harbor master: here Henares for your information we have the Ariane 503 booster in tow and request authorization to continue our journey.
- Henares: You did not follow the approach procedure; we summon you to turn back.
And so, seeing that we were dealing with a zealous autocrat the barge made a great loop to return to the starting point.
Once again, we were lucky because during this maneuver, the man in charge of the backup inflation hose didn’t give slack on it and of course the hose was pulled out the nozzle.
Fortunately, the divers responded immediately to the incident by placing the flexible back.
Finally, the authorization was given and two hours later the booster arrived safely in the port of Maracaibo.
Our mission was finished and all there remained to do was to demobilize the equipment.
In the evening a great meal was organized by CNES people to thank us.
My Comex companions left the next day for Europe and I knew I would probably never see them again. I stayed a couple of days more in Kourou to finish the usual paperwork then at my turn said goodbye to Guyana and to this offshore life I had liked so much.