As a mechanic assigned to the Navy’s USS Illinois submarine, Jason Buffi and the rest of his team had an important job: keeping the air in the submarine breathable as it spent three weeks under the Arctic ice.
When it comes to living in a submarine, having air to breathe seems like … kind of a big deal?
“It’s actually a lot simpler than you’d think,” says Buffi, an Eagle Scout from Troop 70 in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. “COH2 burners burn off all the hydrocarbons and everything we really don’t want to breathe in the air. CO2 scrubbers use a chemical composition that removes the CO2 from the air. And then the integrated low pressure electrolyzer uses the process of electrolysis to zap deionized water and separate the molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
“And the oxygen we put into the ventilation system.”
We’ll take your word for it, sir.
Ice Exercise 2022, or ICEX 2022, was a three-week exercise designed to research, test and evaluate the operational capabilities of the USS Illinois and one other submarine.
Since everyone had plenty of air to breathe, we can conclude that Buffi and his coworkers accomplished their mission.
Buffi is a machinist’s mate auxiliary second class. Due to their long work hours and extremely large workload, the MMAs have earned the nickname “A-gang.”
“Auxiliary is a broad word,” says Buffi. “We do what seems to be everything under the sun.”
Under the Arctic ice, the MMA engineers were responsible for all non-nuclear mechanical systems, such as the trim and drain systems (how water is moved to control ballast), all auxiliary tanks and voids, the high-pressure air system, sanitary, service air and all ship hydraulic systems (pressured oil that moves through most of the valves on the sub).
“All of us are in charge of all those things,” says Buffi. “And the big thing we own is the atmospheres – how we breathe. We maintain the atmosphere on board.”
As the rest of the crew went about its business — testing sonar technology, testing the weapons system torpedoes tracking … basically testing the ship’s systems to see how it would react under the ice — the A-gang went about theirs.
“Those machines are manned 24/7 through machinery watch,” says Buffi.
A typical day for Buffi meant eight hours watching the machines that control the ship’s atmosphere, eight hours doing other duties and eight hours of sleep.
“It was pretty fun,” he says.
“The most desolate place I’ve ever been”
“The Arctic region can be unforgiving and challenging like no other place on Earth,” says Rear Adm. Richard Seif, commander of the Navy’s Undersea Warfighting Development Center in Groton, Connecticut, and the ranking officer of ICEX 2022. “It’s also changing and becoming more active with maritime activity. ICEX 2022 provides the Navy an opportunity to increase capability and readiness in this unique environment, and to continue establishing best practices we can share with partners and allies who share the U.S.’s goal of a free and peaceful Arctic.”
A few times during the mission, the sub would surface through the ice, giving the crew time to get out and walk around. At one point, the temperature was minus 37.
“It was the most desolate place I’ve ever been in my life,” says Buffi. “There was nothing else around, other than the other boat. If you looked around, you were completely alone.”
Buffi says he was inspired to join the Navy by his family — his grandfather was a World War II vet and his father served shortly after the Vietnam War — but Scouting taught him many of the skills he uses to this day.
“There were people in my boat who didn’t even know how to fold the American flag,” he says. “I taught them how to fold the flag. That was one of the first things I learned in Scouting.”
After spending four years assigned to the USS Illinois, Buffi is now on shore duty in Virginia, but the things he learned in Scouting and as a member of the Order of the Arrow continue to serve him well.
“Preparation, planning … as a lodge chief, I got to experience public speaking and I learned to be confident,” he says. “And then there’s the idea of hard work, determination and seeing things to the end.”