Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – When SpaceX’s Elon Musk calls with an emergency plan to save a dozen children trapped in a flooded cave, even at 6 a.m., you don’t let it go to voicemail.
Andrew Branagh certainly didn’t last Friday morning, and that's how the CEO of Arcata-based Wing Inflatables suddenly found himself and his company engulfed in an unprecedented day-long effort to invent, build, test and ship potentially life-saving “pods” to northern Thailand.
There, in Mae Sai, 12 boys ages 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old soccer coach became trapped two-and-a-half miles deep in Tham Luang Nang Non Cave following a flash flood two weeks ago.
Efforts to save the youth soccer team have been stymied by rising, muddy water and narrow passages. A Thai diver died during one attempted traverse.
The wake-up text and call to Arcata was from Musk’s engineering team, who told Branagh that “Elon has an idea, or our team does.”
Musk’s initial concept of a rescue tube needed some refinement, and with its long experience in inflatable watercraft, Wing was ideally suited to the task.
“We came up with our own idea,” Branagh said. That was for a submersible “torpedo,” into which a person could be placed along with an air tank and breathing apparatus. The person could then be towed by the front and back, and be guided through the cave’s jagged passages.
With Monsoon rains impending and no time to waste, Wing swung into action.
The company’s engineers undertook an unprecedented, fast-track parallel design effort, sketching their ideas on paper while entering design data into a computer CAD program. From there, the design went to the factory floor for cutting and assembly.
A full one-third of the Wing work force, located at the old California Barrel Factory building on Samoa Boulevard, was pulled in on the process, including some 30 employees and the company’s entire management and leadership.
This reduced the factory’s usual work output by half, but with lives at stake and an emergency engineering solution to create, that wasn’t an issue. “It’s not gonna matter what this costs,” Branagh said. “Let’s do this thing.”
Working with focused urgency, by 9:30 a.m. Friday morning, the Wing team was prototyping its concept. “There’s risk involved in making it fast,” Branagh said. But there were no throwaway or defective units; no redesigns or re-do’s.
“The very first one was a finished product,” Branagh said. “The design didn’t have to go backwards.”
The seven-foot, orange and black polyurethane pods seal with Velcro and may inflate with the passenger’s exhaled air. They sport a side vent for entry, holes on the top for releasing air for buoyancy adjustment and include inflatable pontoons on the sides for when more flotation is required.
By 1 p.m., the initial units were ready for testing. They were taken to the Arcata Community Pool on 16th Street, where Charlie Notthoff, a certified dive instructor for Pacific Outfitters, supervised the testing.
Testing was conducted using two people who don’t swim, according to Branagh. “It worked exactly as planned,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Wing CEO had spoken on a conference call with Musk and his engineering staff. “He was very direct and clear on supporting getting a solution in place,” Branagh said.
At 5:15 p.m., Musk’s jet arrived at ACV, where the Wing team loaded five of the pods on board for transport to Thailand. Eight more flew out Saturday morning at 8 a.m.
Wing has long experience with space-grade technology, having provided unique watercraft to NASA for use in challenging and dangerous situations. The company modestly describes itself as a "boat dealership" on its Facebook page.
The Arcata-forged tech will augment a palette of options for Musk's engineers, drawn from his companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and The Boring Company. The latter is building underground tubes for ultra-fast mass transportation, and has advanced ground-penetrating radar among other boring technologies.
Branagh frankly stated that the pods represent a last-resort deus ex machina of unproven efficacy. But with oxygen levels in the cave dropping and Monsoons on the way in, it’s one more option for rescuers on the scene.
“This is not the ideal system,” Branagh said. “We’re hoping pumps will work and they can get out another way.” But, he said, with more engineering and testing, the pods could evolve into “a wonderful solution” and a new product for use in cave rescues, which occur year-round all over the world.
As for the pods’ possible retail cost, “We haven’t given it a thought,” Branagh said.
What Branagh and his management team are thinking about is his workers and their commitment to the rescue effort. “I’m so proud of our employees,” he said. “The whole factory came together.”
More photos by Giovanna Castro Salas of Wing Inflatables are viewable here.