Safety Undersea: Protecting People and Property at AUTEC

By Kerry McGinley

Tens of millions of dollars and human lives are on the line on Peter Canipe’s watch. He’s the Division Manager in charge of Support Services for the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, a U.S. Navy major range test base located in the Bahamas. AUTEC is a deep-water test evaluation facility that’s 72 miles long, 24 miles wide and 6,000 feet deep. Even with that much ocean, 45 people under his supervision and 36 years on the job, Canipe has a perfect safety record. 

“I’ve always believed you have to be hands-on,” he said. “You can’t just sit in this office and expect every facet is going to work. If you aren’t out in the field with everything, you can’t expect it to run accordingly. I’ve always been taught that since I was in the military. That’s just kind of the way I lead.”

His supervisor, Peter Young, recommended Canipe as a prime example of Be Safe, one of PAE’s eight principle values. 

“Pete Canipe is responsible for a diverse array of high-risk and highly regulated functions at AUTEC,” Young said. “His leadership, experience and in-depth knowledge of these areas have resulted in all these areas delivering top-notch performance with zero safety incidents in a high OPTEMPO environment.”

AUTEC was established on Andros Island in the Bahamas by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War because its depth allowed the passage of submarines and its relative proximity to the U.S. The site is a research and development lab as well as a fleet training range for submarines, surface ships, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for U.S. and NATO forces. 

Canipe’s crew is responsible for high-risk, highly regulated services including ordnance handling, the Mk-30/46/48/54 underwater target program, torpedo program, diving and Navy-certified crane operations and more.

A normal day includes launching Mk-30 targets throughout the day so USN helicopter pilots and crews can track them as if they were submarines on the North Range and P-8’s doing the same on the South Range.  

“Each target is work about $1.5 million. We don’t want them hitting the target,” he said. “Our helicopters and our submarines, our surface ships, our aircraft, are to locate these Mk-30 targets. Then they’ll drop a torpedo in the area they hear the noise. We can grade the pilots on whether they would’ve got a hit or a miss. It’s the way they get certified. Each pilot and crewman has to be certified before they go back to their command and are deployed.”

His team also must recover all those targets, bring them back and service them for their next use, a process that takes 36 hours. They perform similar services for torpedo training. Each torpedo is worth about $4.5 million and produces as a by-product hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, poisonous, flammable liquid that boils at just over room temperature. 

Despite the inherent risk of the job, Canipe keeps his people safe and his equipment running. He also consistently passes multiple, rigorous inspections with flying colors. His programs are subject to numerous outside evaluations year after year with outstanding results.     “His undermanned Mk-30 target team was lauded by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport inspection team as the best Mk-30 program in the Navy,” Young said. “(This is) especially noteworthy as AUTEC’s Mk-30 program is the only all-contractor operation in the Navy.”

Canipe also raised his family on Andros island; his oldest daughter and son both worked at AUTEC before finding jobs at NASA and SpaceX similar to the ones they worked on the island.

“I came here and fell in love with the place,” he said. “I like that it’s ever-changing. I could be diving in the morning, recovering a weapon or going to a corporate meeting in the afternoon. It’s never dull.”