The man regarded as father of the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) industry says he got his start in the industry by accident.
The fortunate "accident" occurred in 1971 when Martin Cherrington owned a utility drilling business and was asked to look at a project that would ultimately shape his future business career.
"Pacific Gas and Electric called me to look at a project outside Watsonville, CA at a highway crossing in the area. They have a river there called the Pajaro. While I was there, the engineer asked me to take a look at the river and see if I could figure out a way to drill across the river," Cherrington said
The company wanted to install about 500 feet of four-inch gas pipeline beneath the river. Cherrington initially thought the project would involve building two big caissons and using them to go under the river
While driving home to the Sacramento area, he had an idea about handling the project with equipment from a most unlikely source.
"I got to thinking we had some tools we used in utility drilling that had a tendency to come up out of the ground, sometimes in the middle of the street When they did that we'd take them out of service and throw them in the junk pile because they were completely useless for utility drilling," Cherrington said.
"I thought maybe the thing to do was go from the surface and angle down and see if they would come up. I took some of the tools from the junk pile and hooked them up and made a couple of tests, and sure enough, they did exactly what they had before and had a tendency to come up," he said.
"By accident, I kind of stumbled into that marketplace no one had realized was out there," Cherrington added. "We got the pipe underground under the river and made a few friends, but didn't make much money and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the effort."
Cherrington couldn't have been more mistaken. It wasn't long before he was facing an even bigger challenge than the California project.
"Weeks later I got a call about doing horizontal drilling across the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, where they wanted to put about 2,000 feet of 24- inch pipe. I said there was no way of doing that and I didn't have the equipment, know-how or technology to do it," he said.
"I finally went and looked at the project and met with a group of people in Baton Rouge late one night. They said they had a lot of crossings of 700 to 800 feet of 12-inch pipe and they said 'Don't worry about the money, you just put the pipes across.' That group of people was Dow Chemical," Cherrington said.
"If it was just up to me, we probably never would have gone for that project, but we went ahead because of the company, the vision they had, and they could understand how much better and safer it would be to put the pipes under the river. That was pretty much the beginning of our river crossings." he said.
Following the Dow projects, Cherrington's company, Titan Contractors, later handled similar jobs for Union Carbide, Shell, Mobil, Phillips and other major companies which helped firmly establish his and his company's reputation in the directional drilling field.
Cherrington's numerous accomplishments during his 30 years in HDD have also won him recognition from his peers. He was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award Feb. 29 at the HDD Rodeo in Perry, GA. The award was co-sponsored by Trenchless Technology Inc., the Directional Crossing Contractors Association Inc., and the North American Society for Trenchless Technology.
"I like to say I was definitely a pioneer in river crossings or directional drilling of river crossings. I was a pioneer, sort of like the pioneers you see on TV coming over the hill with arrows in their backs. I took my share of arrows in early years too." Cherrington said.
After opting to sell Titan Contractors to Reading and Bates, a large exploration and drilling company, Cherrington temporarily shifted gears as he stopped working as a drilling contractor and began manufacturing drilling equipment for Reading and Bates in 1979.
He returned to the HDD contracting business in 1984 with formation of Cherrington Corporation, which has continued to set records for sizes of projects it has successfully handled.
The company has never failed to complete a river crossing project and has installed more than 9.5 miles of pipe 24-inches or larger in diameter and more than 24 miles of casing pipe for the telecommunications and power industries.
Cherrington also has continued manufacturing drilling equipment, including rigs, support equipment and specialty down hole tooling under the Tidrill brand name.
Fabricating and manufacturing drilling equipment is a task he knows well; since very little commercially manufactured equipment was available in Cherrington's early days in directional drilling.
"The market was relatively new, and like anything new, there wasn't anything available off the shelf. The equipment wasn't the same as for oil and gas or mining or water well drilling. Back then the contractor had to provide for himself and had to design and build everything on his own," he said
Much of the earliest commercially produced HDD equipment was small and not always good quality. "To test the mud motor, we would put on a glove and grab the bit, and if we could stop it, we didn't put it in the hole," he said.
"In the '70s we went strictly by art on a lot of things because there wasn't that much science. There was very little understanding of the physical environment in the drill hole and the drill pipe we used back then was very poor quality and fragile because we didn't think we could use heavy drill pipe,"Cherrington said.
He added the directional drilling industry is much more sophisticated today than in his early days.
"There was no wireless surveying equipment or walkover locators back then. It was how far you could drill straight at one sitting. We drilled from a ditch on one side of the road to a ditch on the other side or spaced potholes in the road about 75 feet apart and drilled from pothole to pothole. That was the method of utility drilling in those days," he said.
"In the middle of the '70s we averaged about 30 feet a day. We might drill four times that, but what we could count on was about 30 feet of good hole a day. We had a small willowy drill string that pretty much would go anywhere it wanted to."
"Today the wireless survey systems give you information at anytime on anything and you can instantly know where you are in the hole at any time. The drill pipe today is 6 and 5/8 inches compared to two inches back then and today you have eight and a half inch bits with 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of torque."
While Cherrington and his company remain active in directional drilling, equipment manufacturing has become an increasingly larger part of his business, including two recent equipment shipments to Russia. "One of the machines had 60,000 foot pounds of torque and 500,000 pounds of pullback force and the other had 110,000 pounds of torque and 800,000 pounds of pullback force," Cherrington said.
Like the increasingly larger size of the drilling equipment his company manufactures, Cherrington said he foresees only bigger and better things for the HDD industry.
"I think there will be more science applied to everything with torque, pulls, pushes, flows and all that. I think costs will come down and much greater distances and diameters will be achieved.
"I don't see a limit on diameter," he added. "We periodically get calls now for crossings over 10,000 feet long. When I first got started, 500 feet was exceptionally long and I thought it was ridiculous when they said they wanted to go 2,500 feet across the Atchafalaya River. Now 5,000 to 6,000 feet is very common and it won't be much longer before the 10,000 foot mark is reached."
"Looking in the crystal ball, I see a continual evolution of the industry and I think people who stay focused will achieve many more successes," he said.