» Alvin's Pilots
A tight-knit group with the 'right stuff' to guide a submersible on the seafloor (from Oceanus magazine)
» Life After Alvin
You can't keep former Alvin pilots down on the farm, once they've seen the seafloor
|Gavin Eppard scrubs Alvin to rid the sub of corrosive salt. (Photo by Amy Nevala, WHOI)|
working for one month as a telemarketer in high school, Gavin Eppard
decided to avoid a career involving office cubicles. “I can’t handle
fluorescent lighting,” said the 34-year-old Honolulu native. He went on
to jobs as a dive master and graphic designer before first going to sea
as an intern on R/V Atlantis
with the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center. Several other
internships at sea followed while he took technology classes at
Monterey Peninsula College in California. To become WHOI’s newest Alvin
pilot in the spring of 2005, he has spent approximately eight months a
year at sea since June 2001. He is the 35th person to complete pilot
training for operation of the 41-year-old submersible.
How do you prepare mentally and physically for a dive?
get a good night’s sleep then do stretches in the morning because I
know I’m going to be cramped in the sub all day. Mentally, I prepare by
reviewing the scientists’ objectives and talking with them frequently
to make sure I am totally clear on their needs for the dive.
Ever get scared in the sub?
We do all the maintenance, and we trust each other completely to
troubleshoot any problems that may come up. I never, ever question the
integrity of the sub because of the experience of the guys working on
What is the one thing that can make a dive truly awful?
Food poisoning. Or seasickness. That has happened a few timesnot to me, but to others with me in the sub.
How do you keep in shape at sea?
we don’t watch it, it is easy out here with all the good, homemade food
to become the “round” shape. I do like the rowing machine because it is
safer than the treadmill in heavy seas. Plus our job is physically
demanding; we’re climbing six flights of ladders (stairs) several times
a day as we go from place to place on the ship. In ports we’re often
loading or offloading tons of equipment.
What questions are you most often asked about your job?
“Have you dived on Titanic?” (No, but I’d like to.)
“What do you do if you have to pee while diving?” (Go in a bottle.)
long does it take to decompress after a dive?” (We don’t decompress;
the atmosphere in the sub is the same as on the surface.)
Whom would you most like to invite to dive with you in Alvin?
The president of the United States. I would like him to see why science
and exploration is important, and why funding is critical to our
|Anthony Berry rides the sub to the sea surface to assist with deployment. (Photo by Amy Nevala, WHOI)|
mom got me the job,” Anthony Berry said of the first summer he spent
volunteering in a chemistry lab at WHOI, where his mother worked.
Summer after summer through high school and college, he returned to
WHOI labs, combing through mud samples, learning how to build
underwater vehicles, and helping to rewire Alvin
during a maintenance overhaul. After earning an electrical engineering
degree in 2001 from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts
and job searching from his hometown of Woods Hole for something “cool,
different, and adventurous,” he joined the pilot training program. Now
25, he is currently the program’s youngest pilot in training. “The
ideal pilot has an engineering degree and a few years of experience
outside WHOI,” Berry said. “I think it helped my application that I had
been hanging around the place since I was 16.”
What did your mom say about you becoming the pilot of a submersible, a job requiring you to go to sea for eight months a year?
She was supportive of the job. It was the ship that worried her. She said, “You’re going to work on Atlantis?
You’re going to get so seasick!” She had been on the ship once and had
spent the entire week sick in her bunk. She hasn’t been back on the
ship since. Fortunately, I don’t get seasick very often.
You’ve had about 15 dives inAlvin as you train to become a pilot. What has been your favorite experience in the sub?
It actually involves swimming during an Alvin
recovery. We were in a tropical location, I forget where, but it was
warm and raining so hard that it hurt. The ocean was glass smooth
except for the drops hitting the surface. In the middle of this, I’m
swimming around the sub and a pod of pilot whales emerges. I was so
close I could reach out and touch them.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you do?
Drive a bulldozer. But I like helping the scientists understand the oceans. So the bulldozer dream is a distant second.
|Mark Spear communicates via phone with the sub’s pilot during Alvin's recovery. (Photo by Amy Nevala, WHOI)|
Spear grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but annual family vacations to the
Florida Keys ultimately shaped his life. “By age six I knew I’d live
and work on the ocean,” Spear said. “After high school I ran across a
scuba magazine advertisement promising ‘high pay, travel, and
adventure.’ I saw my ticket out of the Midwest.” After graduating from
a diving school in California, he spent 10 years as a commercial diver
with Oceaneering International. On one project he worked and lived for
36 days in a deep-diving saturation complex located 980 feet below the
surface. He left in 1988 to earn a mechanical engineering degree from
California Polytechnic State University then went on to work for
Applied Technologies. When he wasn’t working, he was sea and surf
kayaking near his home in San Luis Obispo.
How did your love of the outdoors influence your decision to become a pilot?
I loved my job, there was something confining about working in an
office. Plus I missed being at sea. I wanted to utilize my underwater
experience along with my engineering experience. So one day I did an
Internet job search with the key words “oceanographic and engineering.”
One of my first hits was the position I have now with the Alvin group.
What was your initial reaction to seeing Alvin?
wasand still amblown away. I was amazed with the simple yet elegant
design solutions utilizing basic physics principles to deal with the
incredibly deep work environment.
How far into your training were you before your first dive?
worked with the group for eight months before I had my first
pilot-in-training dive, with Expedition Leader Pat Hickey. It was
October 2003 on the East Pacific Rise. At first I just got to observe,
and that meant seeing what Pat was like in the sub. As many people
know, he swears and yells. A lot. It’s just part of how he pilots the
sub, and it’s a job he does extremely well. Still, I was sort of
pushing myself back in the corner, cringing. Then all of a sudden he
stopped swearing, looked at me, and saidreally sweet “OK, it’s your
turn.” I was fumbling a little, and I was worried that he would start
screaming. But he didn’t raise his voice once, and he was very
Is piloting the sub like driving a car?
A car basically goes forward and reverse on solid ground. The sub,
however, goes up and down and sideways. It tilts forward and back. It
rocks side to side. It spins on a dime. All this happens in a moving
water column. Speed is another difference. Alvin
only goes about 2 miles per hour, but weighs many times more than a
regular car, around 34,000 pounds. Because of the inertia of the sub’s
large mass, you have to be careful not to run it into cliffs and other
|Bruce Strickrott wears diving gear in cold weather when helping to recover the sub. (Photo by Amy Nevala, WHOI)|
Strickrott, who hails from Maryland and New York, earned his sea legs
in the U.S. Navy. After joining at age 20, he participated in the Gulf
War, where he ran radars, monitored surface-to-air missile defense, and
provided anti-aircraft warfare support on a naval vessel. After six
years, he went back to college for a degree in ocean engineering from
Florida Atlantic University. During his job search, he found WHOI’s
Internet advertisement seeking Alvin pilots. “When I went to Woods Hole for the interview, I saw the research vessel Atlantis II there. Then I saw Alvin. And at that moment I said, “Man, I want this job.’”
Are you ever scared in the sub?
once in a while I’ll jump or get startled, like when the sub bumps into
something. Otherwise, we do everything possible to keep us out of dicey
What three skills must every Alvin pilot possess?
to detail is probably the most important skill. Piloting the sub is
about moving up and down safely, dealing with atmospheric pressure in
the sub, doing science, checking systems, making sure data is being
collected properly. With all that to do, the second skill is keeping
your wits about you, staying calm and making decisions in a logical
way. The third? Keeping a sense of humor. Of course, the technical
skills are obvious, but without humor down there, we’re doomed.
Of the 35 people who have piloted Alvin, only one has been a woman. Few have been minorities; there has never been a black Alvin pilot. Why do you think there aren’t more women and minority pilots?
don’t think it’s a hiring philosophy; we have had minorities, and one
woman pilot. I think it’s a reflection of a larger problem of not
having enough women and minorities in science and engineering fields.
What do you do when you are not on the ship?
usually get 10 days to three months off at a time for vacation. In the
winter I ski as much as possible. Otherwise I do normal things that
people do. I go to weddings, visit family, and spend time at the office
in Woods Hole.
What person, dead or alive, would you most like to invite on a dive in Alvin?
Jules Verne (author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Tell me he wouldn’t get the biggest kick out of it.
|Patrick Hickey expects to pilot his 600th Alvin dive in 2006. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution photo)|
Patrick Hickey has spent more time under waterat least 175 days of cumulative dive timethan most astronauts have spent in space. On May 23, 2003, he made his 500th Alvin dive
to the seafloor, becoming the second pilot to make that many dives in
the four decades of the sub’s operation. Hickey, who grew up in
Calgary, Canada, never thought he would stick around long enough to see
the day. “I started with WHOI as a break from my career as a
submersible pilot, remotely operated vehicle operator, and occasional
commercial diver in the oil and gas industry,” he said. He’s since
extended that sabbatical indefinitely. He joined the Alvin group in 1987 and expects to pilot his 600th dive in 2006.
Does it get boring for you to go to the seafloor, after so many dives?
areas that I have visited many times it can get monotonous. For me it’s
like making the same drive to and from work each day. But there are
still vent fields I find very interesting. My favorite part is when we
run across something really unusual. Once off the coast of California near a military base we found test torpedoes on the seafloor.
What advice do you have for people interested in becoming a pilot?
and mechanical experience is essential; so is learning principles of
physics, mechanics, acoustics, and electronics. Having a science
background helps too; I have benefited from knowing about marine
geology, chemistry and biology.
The sphere in Alvin is close quarters that can make for an intense experience. Does that spur close or strange relationships with the two observers?
the most part we all get along well in the sub but it can trigger some
strange relationships. There are times when close quarters have
definitely preyed on pilots nerves, especially where hygiene is
concerned. We have been ready to dive and have had to ask people to go
take a shower.
Alvin, now 41 years old, is scheduled to be replaced in 2009 with a new, deeper-diving vehicle capable of reaching more than 99 percent of the seafloor. What do you look forward to about the new sub?
increased visibility. The basic vehicle components won’t change, but
we’ll have better fields of view. They are adding two more side view
ports, for a total of five view ports. That means no matter where you
look you’ll be able to see most of what is surrounding the sub. The sphere diameter is going to increase by about 4 inches,
which may not sound like much, but it will actually increase the sphere
volume by 30 percent. It will increase in size from 5 feet, 8 inches to 6
feet, 2 inches. That’s good news for our taller pilots.
Amy E. Nevala
Posted: August 3, 2005