Local 1509 members upgrade legendary submersible

At Ladish Forging, L-1509 members heat up one of two titanium disks they will mold into hemispheres. (Photo by Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)

Workers build crew compartment for deep-ocean research vessel Alvin

MEMBERS OF LOCAL 1509 (Cudahy, Wis.) are building a new sphere to house people and equipment on a tiny submarine named Alvin, the first submersible to illuminate the rusting hulk of the Titanic.

Commissioned in June 1964, Alvin was also the first submersible to carry scientists nearly three miles deep, where strange sea creatures live in total darkness. The vessel will be replaced by a more advanced submersible built in part by Boilermakers at Ladish Forging. However, the new Alvin, costing $50 million, may not be completely finished until 2015. In the meantime, the original Alvin body will be upgraded with the new personnel sphere. The upgrade will enable scientists to begin a new era of exploration as early as 2011, diving deeper (four miles vs. 2.8 miles), and accessing more of the ocean floor (99 percent vs. 62 percent).

Because it will go deeper, the new sphere — which will hold the pilot, two scientists, and equipment — must withstand more tons of pressure. (Deep explorers use spheres to make crew compartments because that geometry best resists the crushing force.)

To meet those pressures, Local 1509 members are molding two giant disks of titanium (which is stronger and lighter than steel) into cup-like hemispheres. They will weld the hemispheres together to form the sphere.

The members began to shape each hemisphere by first heating a six-inch-thick, 11-foot-wide titanium disk. They had to move fast, as a piece that large cools quickly. While the disk was still blistering hot, they rammed a giant press into it to form a giant cup. What took literally seconds to form will now take up to two years to complete. The two cups will be forged, welded together, machined, and heat treated. Five viewing ports (the old Alvin has three) will be cut out. Then the testing will begin.

The completed personnel sphere will measure seven feet across — one foot wider than its predecessor. Its volume will be 18 percent larger, allowing twice as much room for equipment and a little more room for passengers.

The 16-ton Alvin is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The submersible has taken over 12,000 people on more than 4,200 dives to observe life forms that must cope with super-pressures and move about in total darkness. The vessel is named for Allyn Vine, a WHOI engineer and geophysicist who helped pioneer deep submergence research and technology. According to Wikipedia (an online enchyclopedia), research conducted by Alvin has been featured in nearly 2,000 scientific papers.

Local 1509 has represented workers at Ladish Forging since it was chartered in 1944.

This story includes information from William J. Broad of the New York Times, August 26.