Employee Portrait Gallery—Dudley Foster

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Dudley Foster conducts pre-dive safety checks as a long Alvin day begins. (Photo by Cindy Van Dover)

 

Dudley Foster was a 26-year-old former Navy pilot when he came to Woods Hole in 1972, hungry for work. “I applied for anything—janitor, whatever,” he said. His degree in mechanical engineering from California State Polytechnic University and pilot experience landed him an engineering liaison position, helping to prepare the submersible Alvin for science operations. Three years later, having trained to drive Alvin, he began what would become WHOI’s longest tenure as a pilot of one of the world’s deepest diving research submersibles.

For years, he spent as much as eight months at sea annually, first aboard Alvin’s original tender Lulu and later on Atlantis II and the new Atlantis. Even now, days at sea for pilots begin at 5:30 a.m. and often go late into the night as the Alvin group prepares the sub for the next day’s dive. Those days in the pilot seat are intense—and sometimes dangerous. Once the 23-foot, 35,200-pound sub became tangled in a cable of instruments strung on the seafloor by a previous expedition. A few calculations assured Dudley that Alvin was powerful and buoyant enough to carry the sub and its snarled load to the surface.

While most pilots stay an average of five years, Dudley has remained dedicated to deep-sea science for more than three decades. “The months of seven-day work weeks are physically wearing, but the excitement of seeing a small portion of the Earth never seen before, or possibly ever again, keeps me looking forward to my next day at the bottom of the sea,” Dudley wrote in the 1989  Alvin issue of Oceanus magazine.

In 1975, a year after becoming an Alvin pilot, Dudley was named expedition leader, a title he still holds. Expedition leaders are responsible for at-sea aspects of Alvin operations, including logistics for science and certification and training of fellow pilots.

On over 530 dives, Dudley has explored undersea canyons, super-heated vents on the Galápagos Rift, and the ill-fated Titanic. Only one other person, pilot and expedition leader Patrick Hickey, has logged as many hours in Alvin’s pilot seat. The vehicle’s mechanical arm is “like an extension of me,” Dudley said in the 1989 article. “I wear the sub as part of my body.” Alvin operations coordinator Rick Chandler, who has worked with Dudley since 1987, added: “His knowledge of every system on the sub is staggering.”

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