What Is the Alvin Training Program Like?
A conversation with former Alvin pilot Anthony Tarantino
Like many boys who spend their youths throwing baseballs in Massachusetts parks, Tarantino dreamed of playing for the Red Sox. When not pitching, he liked to take apart his toys and put them back together, which ultimately led to a career in engineering. After graduating Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, he worked for seven years at two engineering firms. In 1999 he went to Hawaii for a snorkeling and scuba vacation. “There were all sorts of interesting things in the water,” he said. “I remember thinking on the flight home, ‘Gee, it would be kind of interesting to do something where I would see some cool stuff in the water.’ Being from Massachusetts, I knew a little bit about Alvin. As a shot in the dark, I pulled up WHOI’s Web page, saw a job ad, looked at the skills they were looking for, and said, ‘I can do all that stuff.’”
What is the Alvin pilot training program like? What skills do you need?
It helps if you have an engineering background, because the sub is very complex. You start off as an Alvin technician, and your job is basically to help out and do as much as you can. In the meantime, you’re looking and listening, gathering as much information as possible and trying to learn about how the day-to-day operations go, as well as what makes the sub work. The first couple of months you’re here, you’re feeling it out.
What do you mean by “you’re feeling it out”?
The lifestyle. This job has a few unusual features. Being out here for eight months of the year. Dealing with the fact that the people you work with are the people you live with and the people you play with, is another big factor. Being away from your family for so long. I don’t have a house or an apartment. I have my stuff in my sister’s house in boxes. When I’m on vacation, I’m either traveling or bumming a room in my sister’s house, or even my parents’ house. So it’s a nomadic lifestyle. None of us is married. It can be very difficult to hold a relationship.
Assuming you like the lifestyle, what happens next?
Well, while you’re trying to decide whether you fit into the program, the Alvin group is doing the same thing with you. If you’ve proven yourself, one day they come up to you, and they say, “We’ve talked about it, and we think you’re ready. You’re a PIT now.”
Pilot-in-training. Every fifth dive, there’s a pilot-in-training dive. A PIT will go down with a pilot and one observer. We accomplish the day’s science mission, and at the same time, train our pilots. There’s no simulator for Alvin. There’s really no other way to learn. I made 16 PIT dives before I made it to pilot. Some people have more.
What are the next steps?
There’s a checklist of systems on Alvin that you have to learn. There are probably 200 electrical, electronic, and mechanical systems—from the system that scrubs out carbon dioxide from the air in the sphere to the variable ballast system that allows you to control the sub’s buoyancy. You have to be able to draw a mechanical diagram of each system and know it thoroughly. Then you have to go in front of a pilot and display your knowledge of each system—how it works, why it works, and how to maintain it. Once you’ve completed all the systems, you begin the process.
The process is just beginning?
The process includes four oral examinations. The first one is with three to five scientists, who ask you about safety and about your ability to complete scientific dive objectives. After that, you have a review board with all the Alvin pilots on board. You stand in front of a whiteboard, and everyone else sits around the table, asking you questions. They’ll say, “OK, draw the VB system.” You draw it out, and then they start asking you all sorts of questions about it. I think I was in there two days, for four to five hours at a time. That was tough.
After that, there are two more reviews. They send you back to Woods Hole, and you have the same type of oral examination with the deep-submergence engineers back at the office. These are the guys who know all the technical bits about the sub that you might deal with on a daily basis. They expect you to have dug into them and know them. They just grill you. These guys have been around for years. They know the history of Alvin, and they expect you to know that, too. They’ll ask questions like “Why is this Alvin system the way it is?”
Once you get past that, you still have one more hurdle to jump?
You have to go before a Navy review board. You get sent to the Navy’s deep-submergence facility in San Diego and sit down in front of an admiral and a group of submarine captains, and they grill you on a bunch of situations as well. Once you get past them, you’re blessed, and you get to dive. You’ve earned your Navy deep-submergence dolphin (an insignia pin), and you’ve made it. You do your first solo dive, and it’s fantastic, and you get out of the sub, and the guys dump a bunch of goop on you. It’s sort of a traditional initiation rite.
Is there a big celebration?
When you get into port after the cruise is done, it’s traditional for the new pilot to throw a party for everyone on board. I did mine in Manzanillo, Mexico, and it was a load of fun. You get roasted by the guy, and they give you gag gifts.
Originally published: August 3, 2005