We’ve lost one of the true giants and pioneers of commercial mixed gas oilfield diving, Lad Handelman, co-founder and former CEO of Cal-Dive Ltd and Oceaneering International. What most people don’t know is that Lad was also instrumental in helping the fledgling tech diving community get its mixed gas diving act together in the early to mid-1990s. Lad was a fierce advocate for diving safety. He will be sorely missed.
I was greatly saddened by the loss of Lad Handelman, who passed away as a result of a heart attack on the evening of October 26, 2020. Though most people knew him as one of the larger-than-life giants and pioneers of commercial oilfield diving, few knew that he was a key advisor for my magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving and the tek.Conferences in the early 1990s.
More importantly, he was instrumental in assisting the fledgling tech diving community get its mixed gas diving act together. Lad, who was the co-founder and CEO of Cal-Dive Ltd. and Oceaneering International, along with his business partner Hugh “Danny” Wilson and others, pioneered the use of helium breathing mixes in oilfield diving in the 1960s, and was consequently a fierce advocate for diving safety. He knew too well what could go wrong.
I remember my first phone call with Lad. It was in mid-1990 and we had just launched the second issue of aquaCORPS. I was sitting at my desk when his call came in. After politely introducing himself, he told me that he would like to offer his opinion about what we (as a community) were doing, if I was willing to listen. “Absolutely,” I said.
“I think you guys are crazy and you’re going to kill yourselves,” he said. “What’s worse is, you’re going to kill a lot of other divers who are going to follow you. I wonder how you are going to feel about that!” There was a long moment of silence. As a reporter and enthusiastic advocate for what would become known as “technical diving,” I was not unfamiliar with criticism.
“Please tell me why you say that,” I answered, and for the next hour, or maybe it was two, we talked about tech diving and diving safety. Laddie made it clear from the get-go that he was not a fan of open circuit scuba due to its limited gas supply—his company had once lost a commercial diver on open circuit scuba when he got tangled in a net and ran out of air. Handelman had to inform the diver’s widow. Nor was he a fan of rebreathers, which he found woefully unreliable after he lost consciousness and had to be resuscitated during a rebreather demonstration dive. As a result, he banned the use of scuba and rebreather technologies from Cal-Dive and Oceaneering.
Lad giving the high-five at aquaCORPS fifth-anniversary party at Tek.95 in San Francisco, CA. Photo from aquaCORPS archives.
By the end of the call, Laddie agreed to get involved and help the community in its adoption of mixed gas technology. He also agreed to join the aquaCORPS advisory board. That began our thirty-year friendship.
Those who were around for the early tek.Conference (1993-1996), will surely remember Laddie’s willingness to directly challenge what he perceived as dangerous practices, for example, running working oxygen levels too high, deep air diving, or not having a recompression chamber on site. He based his judgments on his own experience developing mixed gas diving in the commercial workplace. Not a few TEK presenters—shipwreck explorer and author Gary Gentile comes to mind—found themselves having to explain their safety considerations to Lad in front of the audience (see Lusitania story below). But it was a two-way street; Laddie learned about tech diving as well, and became familiar with our problems and issues.
Lad was actively involved in all four of our early US tek.Conferences and met with and consulted with many of the key technical operators at the time, such as Capt. Billy Deans, Key West Diver, FL and Wings Stocks, and Jim Baden in California. He also joined the aquaCORPS board of directors, and helped me raise capital from some of his former Oceaneering colleagues including atmospheric diving systems (ADS) pioneer Phil Nuytten, then the founder and CEO of Hard Suits Inc.
Lad advised me to sell aquaCORPS in 1995, when the magazine was at its zenith. The tech diving movement seemed poised to go big, and I still had some capital reserves. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen, or at least didn’t see the urgency at the time. A year later, I ran out of money and was forced to close aquaCORPS’ doors, but not until I had spent six months desperately pitching the magazine and conference to a variety of possible investors and buyers including John Cronin, co-founder and then CEO of PADI—all to no avail.
In the end I was forced to close aquaCORPS. I was heartbroken. Laddie never held it against me or rubbed it in. I loved that guy. He was kind, generous, thoughtful and ever wise. He will be sorely missed.
Lad co-chairing a diving safety session at Tek.93 in Orlando, FL. Photo from aquaCORPS archives.
For those who might not know Lad’s story, I want to share author and diving historian Chris Swan’s excellent two-part profile of this extraordinary man, reprinted with permission from the Journal of Diving History. I am also including Don Barthelmess’s classic story, also from Journal of Diving History, about the commercial “mixed gas revolution” that Dan Wilson, Laddie and others pioneered that we ran in InDepth a few months ago.
In addition, here are two Lad stories from aquaCORPS. The first, a roundtable discussion that came out of TEK.95 conference examining the safety of Polly Tapson’s 1994 expedition on the Lusitania, and the second, my long form profile and interview with Lad that was originally published in the magazine in January 1993.
The Santa Barbara Helium Rush—The Legacy Of Dan Wilson’s 400-foot Gas Dive by Don Barthelmess The Journal of Diving History, Fall 2012 Vol. 20, Issue 4, #73
aquaCORPS Forum: The ’94 Lusitania Expedition—Seductive or Suicidal with Gary Gentile, Lad Handelman, and Polly Tapson, aquaCORPS #10 IMAGING June 1995 pg. 24-30
Making The Grade: Interview With Commercial Mixed Gas Pioneer Lad Handelman by Michael Menduno aquaCORPS #5 BENT January 1993 pg. 25-30