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'American Experience' profiles George Bond's Sealab role

George Bond Sr., as shown in the PBS documentary 'American Experience' George Bond Sr., as shown in the PBS documentary 'American Experience'

George Bond Sr. was known throughout Henderson County and especially Bat Cave for bringing health care to unserved isolated pockets of the mountains. Less is known of his role in the 1950s and 1960s in the development of Sealab, a U.S. Navy research station that sought to explore the depths of the ocean the way NASA was exploring space. Until now.

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Dr. Bond's son, George Bond Jr., the retired director of Public Health in Henderson and Buncombe counties, tells us about a new documentary that features his father for his pioneering research on the effects of deep sea diving.

Known as the "father of saturation diving," Bond, a Navy captain, spearheaded U.S. Navy's Sealab I, II and III. Sealab I first plunged into the Pacific Ocean in February 1969 off the shore of northern California.

"The massive tubular structure was an audacious feat of engineering — a pressurized underwater habitat, complete with science labs and living quarters for an elite group of divers who hoped to spend days or even months at a stretch living and working on the ocean floor," PBS says in a synopsis of the 'American Experience' show, set to air Tuesday night.

Known by the deep-sea crew as Papa Topside, Bond was a key part of the new science of underwater exploration.

"The Sealab project, as it was known, was the brainchild of a country doctor turned naval pioneer who dreamed of pushing the limits of ocean exploration the same way NASA was pushing the limits of space exploration," PBS said. "As Americans were becoming entranced with the effort to land a man on the moon, these divers, including one of NASA’s most famous astronauts, were breaking depth barrier records underwater. Sealab tells the little-known story of the daring program that tested the limits of human endurance and revolutionized the way humans explore the ocean."

George Bond Jr. recounts how it came to pass that his dad left his beloved Bat Cave practice — itself a pioneering effort at rural health care — and became a part of the deep sea exploration history.

"My Dad, Dr. George Bond came to Bat Cave in 1945 to bring medical care to a 600 square mile area that was largely isolated in those days," he writes. "Our family lived in an honest to goodness log cabin and Dad’s sole medical asset was an Army surplus jeep with no roof. He made house calls all over the mountains until the 18 hour days almost killed him and eventually worked with the community to buy an old school and opened the Valley Clinic & Hospital. It was truly a 13-bed miracle in the mountains. For his pioneering work in rural health care he was featured in 1956 in the Ralph Edwards television show, "This is Your Life," which included lots of locals telling their stories of how Dad saved their lives or delivered their babies.

"His career path took a sweeping change when he was drafted in 1954 at the tail end of the Korean War. He was sent to Diving School for underwater training by the Navy and then we went to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where Dad became a Submarine Medical Officer. It was there that his fascination with all things underwater blossomed. Along the way he set the world record for escape from a submarine 306 feet below the surface with nothing but a single breath of air which he had to exhale all the way up to keep his lungs from exploding! He also developed techniques inside of a jet strapped to a diving submarine which later allowed escaping from a sinking jet aircraft saving lives of pilots launching off aircraft carriers.

"While he was Officer in Charge of the Medical Research Laboratory in New London, Connecticut, he began a systematic research program of determining how deep and how long man could venture into the depths of the ocean. Those efforts led to the 'Sealab' program where in 1964 Dad put four men 193 feet below the surface off Bermuda in a special 'habitat' built out of two Navy surplus underwater floats! They breathed an exotic mixture of helium and oxygen and stayed down for almost two weeks until adverse weather forced them to bring the habitat up, decompressing the men for two days along the way. Thus began the era of what is now called “saturation diving” whereby the divers tissues become perfused with the gasses they breath such that their decompression time does not increase even if they stay on the bottom for days or weeks. This technology revolutionized the diving industry and it all started with the curiosity of an old country doctor who wondered how deep and how long."

The 2012 book “Sealab” by Ben Helwarth told the entire story of Bond's early experiments with goats breathing exotic gas mixtures under extreme pressures, which ultimately led to the Navy’s Sealab 1, 2, and 3 programs. PBS has been filming the documentary for the past 18 months, Bond said. It's scheduled to air on WUNC-TV at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12.