What's it like to be an ROV Jason pilot?

posted Oct 26, 2017, 3:21 PM by Beth Orcutt

By Kristin Yoshimura


Greetings, folks! Here is a picture I took of what it is like to sit in the ROV Jason control van and watch the pilots drive the ROV on the seafloor. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jimmy Varnum, one of the pilots, and ask him a few questions about what it is like to a pilot.


How did you become a Jason pilot?


“I began working for Benthos, a maker of underwater equipment in the 70’s. A year later, when they began designing an ROV, I said “I’m in. I want to get into this.” In 1982, I began piloting ROV’s. In 1993, Andy Bowen, a friend and former co-worker at Benthos who now works at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), asked if I wanted to pilot ROV Jason on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I said yes, and I’ve been flying Jason ever since.”


Why did you get so interested in ROV’s and Jason?


“Benthos largely made single-purpose equipment like cameras and beacons. When they began building the RPV-430, it was great to finally work on the design of a system with many functions and parts. It was the challenge of creating a vehicle that would be so versatile and complex that really drew me in. I didn’t have much involvement in the original Jason other than piloting, but Bob Petitt and I designed many of the boards in the vehicle and I wrote the firmware for those boards. We learned a lot from Jason I, and built the current version to enable interdisciplinary science.”


What is involved in becoming a Jason pilot?


“There is no set program to becoming a Jason pilot. The most important thing is if you can be away at sea, live on a ship, and work with the same people over and over. If you can, then you get experience with the system over time. Later, if you express interest in becoming a pilot, you’ll get informal training and basic flying lessons. You learn basic manipulation, and then in time you’ll split a watch with a pilot. Eventually you should get your own watch.”


What kind of background is required to become a Jason pilot?


“Well, there are only a limited number of people at sea. Usually around 10, but there are more than 10 types of jobs that need to be done, so you have to be able to wear many hats. There are a lot of things you can learn on the job, but you have to be capable of learning how to do many different things. Being a good electrical or mechanical engineer or technician is a great start. You also have to have the desire to learn new skills. Lastly, we need more women in engineering!”


What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?


“I have two favorite dives, both of them at underwater volcanoes. Hydrothermal vents are cool, but underwater volcanoes are out of this world. At one, we watched the cone of volcano form, and at the other we watched the striations on pillow lava form. It was the coolest thing. There was another dive that was amazing; a molten sulfur pool with iron in it. It was jet black. The sulfur was much denser than the water so the two didn’t mix. There were sheets of sulfur ice and little flat fish that would sit on top of the ice. We dipped a bucket into the pool of the black bubbling, boiling sulfur and pulled it up to sample it, and the entire bucket immediately froze when we lifted it out of the pool. That was pretty neat.”


What would you say is the most rewarding thing about your job?


“Piloting never gets old. There’s a lot stuff that’s hard work about the job, but sitting in the chair and using the manipulators will never get old.”