Every member of the Alvin Group starts at the bottom and works his way up, learning the fundamental components of the submersible. As part of the team, the pilot-in-training (PIT) must learn every aspect of operating the submersible, including servicing and maintenance on Alvin.
The first job that is typically mastered by a PIT is the job of swimmer. Swimmers aid in the launch and recovery of Alvin. Their primary responsibilities are to release Alvin from the A-frame on the launch, secure the basket, and reattach Alvin to the A-frame on the recovery.
"Typically, you begin as an observer, watching an experienced swimmer. Then, you swim while someone supervises you. Finally, you do it all as a solo," said Sean McPeak. This pattern is followed throughout all the qualifiers or training periods that the PITs undergo.
Next up is training on the rigid inflatable boat (RIB). The RIB is responsible for picking up the swimmers after Alvin has begun the dive. On the recovery, the RIB is responsible for bringing the swimmers to Alvin and coordinating the attachment of the towline to the submersible.
It's not an easy job. As the RIB operator, you need to be aware of the swimmers, the submersible, and the towline. Your job is to guarantee that the swimmers can attach the towline to the submersible. After the towline is attached and the swimmers have confirmed that the A-frame has Alvin secured, the swimmers dive off into the water, and the RIB picks them up for a safe return to the deck of Atlantis.
After swimming and RIB qualifications, the next position to master is that of A-frame operator. The A-frame operator is responsible for the submersible's travels from the deck cradle to the water (on the launch) and vice versa (for the recovery). The chief engineer is always on hand to assist if something malfunctions, but it's the A-frame operator that works with the launch coordinator to ensure a safe entry and retrieval from the water.
The launch coordinator supervises and coordinates all actions of the previously mentioned people, including the swimmers, the RIB operator, and the A-frame operator. The launch coordinator also talks to the submersible pilot and the bridge to ensure that everything runs like clockwork during launches and recoveries. During a launch or a recovery, the launch coordinator has the final word.
After the submersible is in the water, there are two very busy people: the surface controller (the next position for the PIT to master) and the pilot. The surface controller is in Toplab and is responsible for giving the pilot their launch altitude (depth of water at launch position) and for following the position of the submersible while it is on the bottom.
This information is shared with the bridge, where the watch on duty attempts to keep Atlantis close to Alvin's position. In this way, Atlantis always knows where Alvin is, ensuring that the ship is ready and in position for a recovery when Alvin surfaces. The surface controller also serves as the primary communication link between the ship and the submersible. This was the person who coordinated our Phone Calls to the Deep and also sends any messages to the science party from Alvin (such as the science report or any questions about deployment of someone's project).
Along the way, PITs get the opportunity to operate the controls of Alvin under the supervision of a current pilot. These are called PIT dives. There is the PIT, who occupies the pilot seat, a pilot in one of the observer spots, and a scientific observer in the other spot. This way, the PIT gets a chance to try tackling some of the challenges underwater and receive some feedback from the pilot.
While a PIT is receiving hands-on training in these positions, they also are taking written qualifiers. They need to research information about different aspects of Alvin -- including its electrical and mechanical components, safety procedures, and handling the computers -- to pass this portion of the training. Once they have studied hard, they'll go and talk with a current pilot about what they've learned.
"Have you ever had a written qualifier where the pilot said you need to go back and study more?" I asked of Pilot-in-Training Anthony Berry ("A.B.").
"All the time," was his response.
Once a PIT successfully completes one of these, the pilot will sign off on the PIT's performance during this particular section. I think it's really interesting that the current pilots are responsible for the training of the future pilots.
"The chief pilot, Bruce Strickrott, is responsible for the training of the PITs, but everyone in the group is involved," said A.B.
When I asked him about training, Bruce said, "The best thing about training is that talking to the PITs and answering their questions helps to keep the knowledge fresh in the current pilots' minds."
After the hands-on training and written qualifiers, a PIT still has to pass qualifiers under the observation of the current Alvin pilots, an on board science party, the engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the U. S. Navy. Because Alvin is certified to dive by the U. S. Navy, the Navy must certify all the pilots.
While it seems like an involved and complicated process, the training it takes to become a pilot appears to be an incredibly efficient system. Future pilots are familiar with every aspect of the submersible before they even take the controls, and current pilots retain the information that they've learned by teaching new pilots and talking about it.