One Bubblehead's Perspective on Qualification

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A “how to” guide for qualifying in a U.S. Navy Submarine 
by Kevin T. Flatley CS2/SS USN.

(Insert your name here.) “Having successfully completed the rigorous professional requirements for qualification in submarines, having gained a through knowledge of submarine construction and operation, having demonstrated his reliability under stress, and having my full confidence and trust, I hereby certify that he is qualified in submarines”… These words mark the end of the long road towards submarine qualification. The process by which one gets to this moment is a difficult one. Qualifying submarines is a task that takes hard work, long hours, and above all, dedication. Completion will grant you entry into a unique brotherhood, and give you the kind of pride that only comes with having accomplished something bigger than yourself.

A submarine crew is much like a family. Everyone knows each other by first name, formality is largely thrown aside, and there are no secrets. When a new man first arrives he is looked at like an in-law, he is a “non-qual.” The Navy has assigned him to the crew but everyone wants to know if he is really going to fit in. He must prove his worth through qualification. During this process he must learn all of the major ships systems and their components, how to draw them, show how they work, and learn how to fight any possible casualty from fire, to flooding, to poison in the air, on every level of the boat. This is done in order to ensure that when the boat is submerged every crew member can be relied upon to know what to do in case of an emergency. If the “non-qual” accomplishes this task he will be then become qualified, will be awarded the Navy’s submarine warfare pin, also known as dolphins, and will become a full member of the crew.

A non-quals first day onboard any Navy sub is intimidating to say the least. Upon a new man’s arrival he becomes the most junior and most inexperienced member of a very highly trained crew. When he first arrives he is given his qualification card and is assigned his “sea dad.” This person is a qualified member of the crew that will help guide the “non-qual” through the qual process. The qual card has all the systems the he must learn listed in it with a signature block next to it. When he is done studying a particular system he must go to a crew member that works directly with or on that system and get a “check out.” This is a verbal quiz designed to test knowledge of a particular part of the boat and once that crew member feels you have all the knowledge required he will sign your card. This process will be repeated over 70 times on the road to qualification. Each non-qual is given only nine months to complete this task and he is expected to complete at least three to four check outs per week.

The qualification process is not only a mental challenge, but a physical one as well. Qualification can only be done on a non-quals “own time,” meaning after he has completed all of his regular work. The submarine, while at sea, works on an eighteen hour schedule that rotates through three six hour watches. Six hours are spent on watch, the other twelve are “off time.” This is a very general term though. There are ships drills scheduled during this time that are designed to test the crew on there abilities to fight casualties. There are also long lists of maintenance that each crew member is assigned in order to keep the boat running. This means that the six hour period normally used for sleep by most qualified crew members must be used for “doing quals” by non-qualified members. The small amounts of entertainment that are available to the crew, such as movies or card games, are off limits to non-quals. All of a non-quals free time is to be dedicated toward qualification. If a non-qual is unable to keep up with the minimum amount of signatures that are required each week, he will then be designated as delinquent, or “dink” in his quals. In this case, a non-qual will be required to muster for an extra two hours of supervised study time after he has completed all of his other tasks. He must continue to do this until he catches up on his minimums. For extra motivation through these slips, the non-quals sea dad is also made to muster with him during this period. Suffice to say, most men stay dink for very short periods of time.

As a non-qual nears the end of his qualifications he is then required to do a “walk through” of every level of the ship. This is a process where a senior member of the crew walks with you through each level of the boat and asks you to identify and explain the uses for all the equipment on that level. Once this is completed, the non-qual is then given one to two weeks to study for his final board. This is the final step before becoming qualified and it is by far the most difficult. In the oral board, three senior enlisted men, each experts in different parts of the boat, and one of the boats officers will give the non-qual essentially, one large check out. Every major system is reviewed in depth in order to see if the individual can put all of his knowledge together at the same time. This process can last anywhere from three to six hours, on average, and is the culmination of many long months of work. It can be a moment of joy and relief for those who pass, or a time of disappointment for those who do not. Each non-qual is given three chances to pass a final board.

Once the final board is completed it is now time to be recognized. The crew that has pushed this man, sleep deprived him, and treated him like an outsider is now all lined up at attention to honor and welcome him into there ranks. The Captain of the boat pins the submarine dolphins to his uniform and presents him with the submarine qualification certificate. This is truly a moment of enormous pride and satisfaction for those who get there. It is the culmination of a not only a process of learning, but also of acceptance into an organization that is larger than yourself. He will from this moment on always be able to call himself a submariner, even long after he hangs up his Navy uniforms.

Qualification in submarines is a daunting task. However, once finished you become part of a fellowship that can only be understood by those who have done it themselves. That can only be truly recognized by the very small and special group of men that have the pride and honor of calling themselves SUBMARINERS.

Written by: CS2/SS Kevin T. Flatley, USN. Qualified on board USS Dallas (SSN700) 26 April, 1998