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Rebuilding Alvin: Jeff McDonald (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Rebuilding Alvin: Jeff McDonald

A series on the people who reassembled the iconic sub


Since the beginning of 2011, Alvin, the U.S. science community’s only human-occupied submersible dedicated to deep-sea research, has been undergoing a thorough overhaul and upgrade that will enhance its capabilities. The improvements include a new personnel sphere, updated command-and-control systems, enhanced lighting and high-definition imaging systems, new syntactic foam to provide buoyancy, and more and larger viewports, or windows.

The centerpiece is a larger personnel sphere with improved interior design to enhance the comfort of pilots and researchers who will occupy it. The titanium sphere is also designed to withstand pressure at depths of 6.5 kilometers (4 miles), with the eventual goal of allowing Alvin to dive beyond its current 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) diving capacity.

Now in the final stages of the first phase of the upgrade, the iconic sub is being painstakingly reassembled, piece by piece, by a one-of-a-kind team of engineers, technicians, and pilots at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). They also carefully inspect and test each component to ensure its reliability and the safety of those who will use to sub to explore the depths.

Here, Jeff McDonald, liaison to the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), describes the engineering designs and procedures associated with the Alvin upgrade:


This list is my tracking mechanism for how we’re progressing through the assembly and the testing of every system on the submarine. There are probably over 1,000 line items on it that detail the receipt inspection, assembly, installation, and testing for every penetrator, window, piece of foam, parts of the frame, the ballast system, life-support system—every certified component on the vehicle.

If we went down to the floor and walked around the vehicle, you could actually point to any component on Alvin, and this list will let you know where it stands.

We compiled design packages for the Alvin upgrade and sent them to the Navy.  They reviewed our designs, and they gave us comments—sometimes as few as seven, sometimes as many as a hundred, depending on the system. And we have to address every one of those.

Then the Navy comes in and does an on-site inspection to validate that the guys down on the floor in the Alvin high bay arebuilding the vehicle in accordance with the approved drawings, and that they used the right parts and the right techniques.

The whole point of my job, the whole point of Navy certification, is to get the maximum reasonable assurance of safety for the three occupants and the vehicle. We certify the design, operation, and maintenance of the vehicle to ensure that safe operations for Alvin continue into the future.

There are actually three different color schemes on this document. The yellow is for the Navy; those are the items they’re really concerned with. The pastels are [Alvin Expedition Leader] Bruce Strickrott’s colors of where he’s statused each item. The red and green are for me and indicate final NAVSEA approval. NAVSEA provides final certification to allow operation of the sub. Green is completely done, which means the design has been approved, we’ve conducted the maintenance, and the system is ready for sea trials. Anything red, the designs are still waiting for final approval at NAVSEA. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem.

I have a degree in ocean engineering from Virginia Tech. I started working for Woods Hole in 2007, sailed with the Alvin group for three years, and then I came ashore in 2011. Before WHOI, I spent eight years as a Navy officer on submarines. So I have a Navy background, understanding the rules and intricacies of that world; and having operated as an Alvin tech and trained to be an Alvin pilot, I also have a unique understanding of that world.

Very rarely do I get the opportunity these days to go down to the assembly floor. It’s unfortunate, because that’s what I used to love to do. I used to get to turn the wrenches.

Now my job is to know all the designs of the submarine, pass all the engineering data back and forth, and coordinate with the Navy to ensure all their questions are answered. I can tell you every bolt and nut. I can tell you where all the metal from our hull was mined.

Building a submarine, it’s all in the details.


Alvin is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by WHOI. The current upgrade has been funded largely by the National Science Foundation, with support from private donations to WHOI.