A tight-knit group with the 'right stuff' to guide a submersible on the seafloor
Forty summers ago in the Bahamas, two men climbed inside a 23-foot white submarine named Alvin and drove it to a depth 6,000 feet, a dive that certified them as the first pilots of the world’s deepest-diving research sub.
Bill Rainnie and Marvin McCamis never became household names the way astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would four years later when they rocketed into space. In 1969, when newspaper headlines worldwide heralded the moon landing, The New York Times called Alvin“a curiously shaped midget submarine, [that] somewhat resembles a chewed-off cigar with a helmet.”
But in the four decades that followed, Alvin has safely transported more than 8,000 researchers on more than 4,100 dives to some of the blackest, coldest, and most remote places on Earth—to depths of 14,764 feet (4,500 meters). While the United States has maintained a small fleet of space shuttles since 1981, Alvin is the country’s sole deep-diving research submarine.
Some 75 space shuttle pilots have flown missions, but since 1965, the job of driving Alvin has gone to just 34 men and one woman. Mechanically minded and adventurous, Alvin pilots are the equivalent of the oceans’ astronauts.
Their skills have allowed scientists worldwide to explore the ocean depths, map undersea volcanoes and valleys, examine previously unknown ocean life, gather water, rock, and biological samples, and see firsthand the ruins of the Titanic. They view sights that—though still on Earth—are nevertheless extraterrestrial, and they bear witness to revolutionary scientific discoveries.
Witnesses to seafloor discoveries
Larry Shumaker, now 73 years old, was a pilot in 1977, the year scientists first identified hydrothermal vents on the seafloor near the Galápagos Islands. Their finding would change ideas about where and how life could exist.
“I felt like Alice in Wonderland,” Shumaker said. “I remember the shimmering water coming from the vents and the unusual animals that humans had never seen before. Of course, now scientists have identified many of these animals (including tubeworms, white shrimp, and giant clams). But at the time it was all so weird and new.”
Former pilot Tom Tengdin was amazed by the tall seafloor rock formations, called black smoker chimneys, that were discovered in 1979. Belching black, scalding, mineral-rich fluids into the ocean, the smokers transformed scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s crust and the ocean’s chemistry.
“Video doesn’t capture the black smokers,” he said. “When you’re down there among them, you can almost hear them roar.”
Pilots are more than deep-sea bus drivers who ferry scientists from surface to seafloor. Most have engineering degrees, and their certification with the U.S. Navy includes drawing—by memory—dozens of the sub’s intricate hydraulic, ballast, electrical, and mechanical components and systems. They are skilled swimmers; every launch and recovery requires assistance in the water. They are all mechanics as well as pilots; if anything breaks during an expedition, there are no fix-it shops at sea.
Just maintaining the sub’s electronic and mechanical components requires at least five hours of work daily. Every three months—or every 25 to 30 dives—Alvin undergoes maintenance and inspection. And every three to five years, Alvin undergoes a six-month overhaul and modernization at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There, the pilots help clean, examine, and reassemble every component of the sub.
“Not to make it sound too dramatic—because the sub is very solid—but we’re constantly working hard to make sure that the sub comes back up to the surface,” said pilot Anthony Tarantino.
At sea, daily chores begin before dawn, when the entire group rises to check the submersible’s equipment and ensure that the batteries are charged. They test electronic gear, from radios to temperature gauges and depth-readers. They make sure Alvin’s cameras work and video recorders are loaded with tape. They add a total of 832 pounds in ballast weights—stacks of steel plates—to each side of the sub. These make Alvin heavy enough to sink to the seafloor.
Then the glory begins, when two scientists slip into the sub’s 6-foot sphere, huddle against tiny view ports, and turn to today’s pilot who will take them to the seafloor. When the sub resurfaces in the evening, another pilot will hose corrosive salt water off Alvin and its components. Meanwhile, tomorrow’s pilot meets with scientists to plan strategies for the next day’s mission.
Reaction from the public
Piloting Alvin comes with modest fame. Children’s books describe the team of six or seven Alvin pilots and pilots-in-training that accompanies the sub on each expedition. Teenagers send e-mail messages to their support ship, the research vessel Atlantis, asking about the two-to-four-year, at-sea training process. (See What is the Alvin Training Program Like?) Strangers on airplanes and parties who ask, “What do you do?” grow wide-eyed at their response.
“People have two reactions,” said Anthony Berry, a 26-year-old in his third year of pilot training. “They are either impressed, or they think I’m crazy. They say, ‘Why would you want to go to sea for months at a time and go into the pitch black sea in a tiny sub?’”
For every 40 applications to the Alvin group, one person is accepted into the pilot training program, which requires worldwide travel and up to eight months each year at sea. But for all the work involved in getting into the pilot seat, piloting Alvin isn’t a career. (See Life After Alvin.) Some of today’s pilots may not be around when Alvin is retired and replaced in 2009 by a new human-occupied submersible, now being designed.
Most stay an average of five years before family, other job opportunities, or the lure of driving something smaller than a 35,000-pound submarine beckons from shore. Still, every pilot has a story of why they went to sea and what happened during their time inside Alvin. (See 'Ever Get Scared in the Sub?' and Other Questions.)
“We’ve all gone through the same path, and the guys who make it are definitely solid,” Tarantino said. “You’re looking at a bunch of guys who rely on each other. I’d place my life in any of their hands.”
Originally published: August 3, 2005