'Ever Get Scared in the Sub?' and Other Questions
Interviews with the pilots who take Alvin to the deep
After 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?
I 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?
No. 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 it.
What is the one thing that can make a dive truly awful?
Food poisoning. Or seasickness. That has happened a few times—not to me, but to others with me in the sub.
How do you keep in shape at sea?
If 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.)
“How 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 success.
“My 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 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?
While 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?
I was—and still am—blown 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?
I 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 said—really 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 encouraging.
Is piloting the sub like driving a car?
No. 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 deep-sea features.
Bruce 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?
Every 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 situations.
What three skills must every Alvin pilot possess?
Attention 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 Alvinpilot. Why do you think there aren’t more women and minority pilots?
I 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?
We 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 has spent more time under water—at least 175 days of cumulative dive time—than 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?
In 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?
Electrical 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 Alvinis close quarters that can make for an intense experience. Does that spur close or strange relationships with the two observers?
For 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?
The 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.
Originally published: August 3, 2005