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Survival Capsule Firm Rides Waves of Future

April 20, 1985|KEAY DAVIDSON | Times Staff Writer

It resembles a flying saucer with portholes. But it can be a matter of life and death to the operators of offshore oil rigs.

Two decades ago, a California inventor named Milton Brucker had a vision of a new kind of lifeboat--one with a solid dome, engine and food supplies--that would boost the chance of surviving an ocean disaster.

That vision has become a reality called the survival capsule, manufactured in La Mesa and sold for distribution to offshore oil rigs around the globe. It bears a faint resemblance to the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" (except that it's orange), and its manufacture has become a multimillion-dollar industry during the last decade.

The fiberglass dome shields workers who otherwise, in an open lifeboat, might burn up in an oil rig accident, die from prolonged exposure to the elements or be swept into the water by high waves.

The capsule is powered by a diesel engine that can attain at least six knots. It holds a five-day supply of marine rations, hand-held distress flares and signal pistols, and compressed air for the crew to breathe while sailing through flames from a burning oil rig.

The survival capsule has saved the lives of 936 oil rig workers in 33 disasters that included storms, high waves, fires, gas explosions and capsizings from Malaysia to the North Sea, according to officials at the manufacturer, Whittaker Survival Systems of La Mesa. The company is a division of the multibillion-dollar, Los Angeles-based Whittaker Corp.

Verifying that claim isn't easy because Whittaker officials won't release details on the statistics. It is proprietary information, they say.

Still, the survival capsules and other types of "covered lifeboats" are unquestionably riding the waves of the future, in the opinion of Lt. Cmdr. William Riley, a staff engineer at the U.S. Coast Guard's Survival Systems Branch in Washington. In a telephone interview, Riley said, "Anything is better than the old-fashioned lifeboat with oars . . . Those are on the way out anyway . . . The standard lifeboat is fast becoming a capsule like this."

But the survival capsule has weathered controversy as well as storms.

Whittaker Vice President Thorwald (Tolly) A. Lambert hesitated before agreeing to talk to a Times reporter because he angrily recalls negative headlines from years ago--for example, "13 Die as Oil-Rig Rescue Fails in Gulf," a front-page story in the April 17, 1976, New York Times. The first paragraph of the article said, "A survival capsule from a sinking oil-drilling rig flipped over early today during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico and 13 men trapped inside died. The Coast Guard said 22 others were rescued."

Not so, insisted Lambert. The capsules simply can't capsize or sink, he said. "This equipment was designed to give these fellows the best chance of survival."

Lambert said they're unsinkable because of air spaces inside sheets of polyurethane within the fiberglass walls. "The only way

you can make it sink is by putting lead in it," Lambert joked.

Claustrophobia and fear of being trapped inside might account for some workers' dislike of the capsules, Lambert said. He recalled, "I've heard people tell me, 'I wouldn't get in one of them things for anything because I'll drown.' "

Lambert said that 98% of the those who use the capsules survive, compared to 49% of those who use ordinary lifeboats.

On the ceiling of the Whittaker factory off Baltimore Drive in La Mesa is a morale-boosting sign: "People Are Alive Today Because of What You're Doing--Our Capsules Have Saved 936 People to Date."

Whittaker Survival Systems bought Brucker's patent and built the first survival capsule in 1972. It makes 85 to 240 capsules a year, depending on the market for the units, which range in price from $80,000 to $160,000 apiece. Whittaker earns $40 million to $50 million a year from sales of the capsules and related equipment.

The units vary in size, and can hold 14 to 54 people. The largest, $160,000 model weighs nine tons and purportedly has a 20-year life.

Each capsule is made by spraying fiberglass into huge molds. Once the fiberglass has dried, it is forced from the mold by injections of water.

The firm has 120 to 300 employees building the capsules at any given time, depending on market conditions.

Demand for the capsules is down because of sluggish conditions in the oil industry. But Lambert expects conditions to improve because some drillers are likely to exploit oil leases while they still have them.

Meanwhile, the capsule isn't without competitors.

A popular rival is the so-called covered lifeboat, which is built by a number of firms around the world. The most obvious difference between covered lifeboats and survival capsules is that the former look like regular boats but have fiberglass tops.

The Whittaker capsule is used almost exclusively on oil rigs because it is well suited for launching from an elevated platform. Some operators of ships and commercial vessels prefer covered lifeboats because they're easier to store.

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