Within a week of graduating from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Don Patterson found himself on a Chevron Single Turbo Beaver and whisked off to Rainbow Lake. He had graduated from SAIT in the Spring of 1968, and was among four students that immediately landed a job at Chevron. As he sat on the plane, crammed between bags of groceries, a bag of potatoes on his lap, he was filled with excitement and ready to start his career as a rig supervisor for Chevron’s drilling department.
When they landed in the bush and unloaded the groceries, Don watched the plane take off. He was alone, wondering if his colleague would pick him up before the bears noticed him. Several hours later, his colleague showed up in the company truck and explained that he had completely forgotten Don was coming. They drove to 100/10-06-111-06W6, the well Don would be trained on – or at least that was the plan. After a few days of training, Don was put in charge when his colleague told him he had “business” to do in town (ask Don). Thus, within a few weeks of graduating, Don was in charge of drilling an 1800 m Rainbow Lake well. Fortunately, he still had a highly experienced tool push (rig manager) to rely on. They finished drilling the well with no problems and Don had completed his “training”.
Don took a short break after drilling this well. They worked 25 day shifts followed by 9 days off for a salary of $500/month – all of which sounded great to Don. He was loving his new job and the responsibilities entrusted to him. He was ready to go back out.
His next well was in the new Kaybob South gas field, 100/07-05-060-18W5. This time he was taken out in a helicopter and dropped off on the lease. This time, he was the only rig supervisor on a 24-hour operation. No pressure…except for the fact that the well was sour (>15% H2S) and approximately 4,600 psi. Don’s main support was a single side band radio which he used to communicate with his boss. Every day, updates were given through this open channel and usually encrypted. They had a code book for drilling events (depths, drill tools, drill stem tests, etc.) based on the phonetic alphabet that was changed daily and reset every 10 days. They did this because all of their competitors could use the same radio frequency.
Within a few days of drilling the Kaybob well, Don ran into a problem. During a coring operating, the worn-down gauge jammed into the tapered hole and became stuck. The floor hand told Don they couldn’t pull it out of the hole. It was the middle of the night and the crew was looking for direction from Don. Don decided to call his boss, Heinz Weiner. Heinz was a nice but tough man who had been a member of the German army during the invasion of Russia in World War 2. Don was able to wake up Heinz at 2 am. After asking for a few details, Heinz said, “I’m sure you will figure it out. I’m going back to bed”. Don worked with the rig crew to jar the coring string out, leaving behind the diamond drill bit. They then went in and drilled out the bit and resumed the job. When Heinz checked in the next morning, he was not surprised with the progress. He had full confidence in Don.
The Kaybob South Field was the largest gas reservoir discovered in Canada at the time and a prized asset for Chevron. Chevron wrote an article on Kaybob South in their magazine “The Standard Oiler”, and included photos of the 100/07-05-060-18W5 well while Don was drilling. The 100/07-05-060-18W5 well would ultimately produce 5.7 billion cubic feet of gas. Good thing Don didn’t give up when his coring bit got stuck!
Don ended up working for Chevron for 31 years and had a chance to see and do a lot across Alberta and British Columbia. His career became focused on completion work, but his year in drilling was a formative experience. This article focused on two wells but Don could tell you about another 100 wells. Don provided this list of some of the wells that stand out most in his mind, so if you run into him – feel free to ask! This is not uncommon, as most people who have worked in the field have many memories attached to wells.
The industry during the late 1960’s contrasts quite strongly to how companies on-board employees now. When I joined the O&G industry as an engineer, I was required to take a few driving courses before I was even allowed to drive the company truck out of the parking lot. Forget about managing a drilling rig! Everyone now has to keep their safety tickets up to date before they can enter a well site. While Don isn’t a fan of all the new processes in the industry, he does see why many of them are necessary. After all, he has been run over by a bull elk, run over by a CCR airplane, and has more than a few scars from his time in the oil patch.
When we think about changes in the oil patch, the focus is usually on advancements in technology, like directional drilling, 3D seismic, multi-stage fracturing, or communication tools. Often left out, however, is a discussion on how the roles and responsibilities of employees has changed so much. Very few new graduates would accept or even be offered a job like the one Don had. This means that employees today rarely get the opportunity to attain the depth of experience that Don and many of his colleagues did. That aside, the positive steps toward a safer industry should indisputably be considered the most important gauge for progress. So while there’s limited appetite for putting employees through a trial by fire, that might not be a bad thing.
About Don Patterson
Don is recently retired but you’ll still see him wandering through the plus 15 in downtown Calgary. Every Wednesday he meets up with a group of friends (whom he calls the “5 Wise Business Barons”) to review and plan their lottery strategy. Keep an eye out for him in the newspaper – he figures he will be sharing a $60 million pot with his friends very soon.
Note: The tour report for 100/07-06-060-18W5 and all of the photos in this article can be downloaded by viewing 100/07-06-060-18W5 ‘s attachments on Petro Ninja.