North Star Drilling crews work on a sonic project in Minneapolis in 1993. North Star, spearheaded by Tom Oothoudt, his brother Ashley and cousin Harvey Exsted, led efforts to broaden the acceptance of sonic drilling. Source: Kris Oothoudt photos

Considered a mentor by those who worked with him, Tom Oothoudt is fondly remembered as a visionary in the sonic drilling industry. The former head of North Star Drilling passed away last November, but his legacy will live on for years to come.

His influence stems from an extensive background in drilling. It’s no exaggeration when Brian Smith, director of the engineering and mineral exploration division at Layne Christensen Company who worked with him at Boart Longyear, says, “He could operate a drill rig before he could drive a car.” A native of Little Falls, Minn., Oothoudt began drilling wells for his dad’s company when he was only 13 years old.

He later went on to start his own company, along with brother Ashley and cousin Harvey Exsted. North Star Drilling specialized in innovative methods to accomplish complex technical drilling projects. They sold the company to Boart Longyear, but 15 years later, in 2009, Oothoudt repurchased the water well division, which was later sold to Major Drilling.

The Sonic Boom
A hard worker with a passion for what he did, the unassuming Oothoudt often carried a yellow legal pad so he could “doodle, sketch and ponder,” recalls Kevin Maher, division president, mineral exploration, at Layne. He worked with Oothoudt in 1994 when North Star was acquired by Boart Longyear. “He loved challenges. He could go to a drill site, watch the activity for a day and come up with ideas to improve safety, productivity or efficiency. His best ideas come from the field.”

Never content with business as usual, Oothoudt sought to fill needs, which might explain why he was always a step ahead of everyone else. “He was a visionary who saw an opportunity to introduce sonic [drilling] to the U.S. in the early 1990s,” says Denis Despres, vice president of North American operations for Major Drilling, who oversaw Oothoudt at Boart Longyear. “He saw the application of this technology in the environmental market. It was a tough sell because it’s expensive.”

Environmental drilling in the early 1980s was performed by auger rigs, rotary rigs or direct push rigs. The sonic rig supplanted all the others because it’s faster and cleaner, it drills deeper and produces better samples.

Better sampling is achieved through continuous coring-a feat other drills are incapable of replicating. Producing a relatively undisturbed core sample from depths other drills can’t reach, sonic is effective in applications that include horizontal and vertical construction drilling, groundwater remediation, mineral exploration and, more recently, geothermal. It is more efficient and versatile-but it wasn’t always reliable, which caused many contractors to shy away.

Tom Oothoudt changed that. He improved its reliability by enhancing the tooling and designing advanced drill bits and threads, which made the drills more efficient and enabled them to penetrate new formations.

“He changed the industry,” claims Ron Thalacker, division president, water resources, with Layne who worked for Boart Longyear when they purchased North Star Drilling. “He was one of the first to bring sonic to the U.S. on a consistent basis and the first to prove it worked on a day-to-day basis. He made the rigs more efficient and brought awareness of the technology. He made it mainstream.”

Oothoudt didn’t invent sonic, Maher acknowledges, he improved it. “Tom perfected it and applied it to the marketplace. He made it reliable, and that’s what brought about the transition from auger to sonic[technology].”

The demand that followed was “incredible,” claims Mark Prueher, central area manager for Major Drilling.

Beyond Borders, Boundaries
After introducing sonic drilling to environmental consulting engineers, Oothoudt was instrumental in expanding it into several other markets. New applications included mining and construction. “He was instrumental in introducing and explaining the technology,” Prueher says, “as well as in developing newer equipment-redesigning drills, drill heads and tooling-and adding applications.”

Sonic drilling has saved millions of dollars in reclamation in the mining industry since it was introduced in the gold mines of Nevada in 1999 to perform tailing investigations. Core samples collected at different angles help determine if extraction is economically feasible. “No other machine could sample this material,” Prueher believes.

Sonic drilling has also proven beneficial in other markets, such as mineral exploration, where rigs have been retrofitted to work in extreme conditions (-75 Fahrenheit), and in construction, where it plays a role in geotechnical investigations and assists in bridge pilings.

Once sonic drilling was established in the U.S., Oothoudt was influential in getting the first rig to cross borders, Despres notes, due to his “willingness to participate when an opportunity came along.”

The Big Dig
A unique opportunity came along in 1991 with Boston’s Big Dig. “It was a turning point for sonic in the construction market,” Maher asserts.

Engineers had contracted another firm to drill with conventional equipment, but they couldn’t penetrate the soil. Boart Longyear had sonic equipment nearby and proposed giving it a try, but the client was skeptical. “Sonic was not reliable,” Maher says.

Or so they thought.

Oothoudt had a knack for incorporating it on projects and adapting as needed. The Big Dig’s demanding circumstances suited sonic drilling, which is “cleaner” because it brings less soil to the surface than a traditional hollow stem auger’s corkscrew. “It didn’t over-excavate,” Despres states.

Over the course of three years, 2,500 holes had to be drilled to a depth of 60 feet below the subgrade of the railway lines in historical fill areas dating to the 1800-1900s, consisting of large-diameter wood strapped together to make additional frontage. In order to stabilize the earth so the contractor could horizontally bore tunnels, the ground had to be frozen. Working overnight around the train schedule, Boart Longyear’s crews drilled holes to insert 2,500 freeze pipes, through which a cold brine solution was passed to freeze the ground.

“We had to ferry on and off the Amtrak rails to miss the trains,” Despres remembers.

“We couldn’t afford disruption of the tracks,” Thalacker adds. “They were always live.”

To facilitate that schedule, Oothoudt suggested retrofitting the equipment to travel down the tracks during 90-minute windows between trains.

“It was Tom’s idea to retrofit and rotate cables to swing off so we could install holes on a grid pattern,” Prueher says. Oothoudt’s plan involved constructing turntables on a railroad car carrier that swiveled so crews could drill three holes at each stop: right, center and left.

“Tom was key in designing the system around the project,” Despres adds, “Without his ingenuity, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Playing It Safe
Oothoudt also applied his ingenuity to safety improvements. “Operator safety was important to him,” Smith indicates. To increase safety and reduce fatigue, he designed automated rod handlers for the sonic drill. This user-friendly, hands-free feature lifts and places the rod onto a spindle, keeping the operator safer and more productive.

Smith, who considers it one of Oothoudt’s greatest innovations, calls it simple and reliable. It’s so useful, it’s now a Boart Longyear product.

The rod handler is an example of Oothoudt’s unique perspective. “He was an innovator who took ideas, adapted them, improved them and applied them to new markets,” Maher says. “He could see what the market needed.” He understood engineering, mechanics and business, combining them in ways no one else in the industry had.

His insight also aided him in placing people in the right position. “He found a way to get the best out of every individual,” Prueher reminisces. A modest leader, he helped others succeed, inspiring them with his positive outlook and teaching them about the equipment, the business and life.

Everyone enjoyed working with him, Thalacker recalls. He treated people well and created a team environment in which he shared credit. “He was a good friend, not just a boss.”

Going Mini
“It’s hard to find business acumen, technical background and field roots in one person, but he had it all,” Maher believes. “He had a big impact on the industry and the people in it.”

His impact extended to the creation of an influential piece of equipment. The mini sonic changed the industry, Prueher proclaims. About the size of a Bobcat, the nimble mini has become the workhorse of the industry because its smaller footprint enables it to work on sites where full-size rigs don’t fit.

“Tom discussed the need when he first brought equipment to the U.S.,” Prueher reveals. “A lot of sites had no room for big drills and small drills weren’t cost efficient.”

The entire concept was his, says Smith, an engineer who worked with Oothoudt on the mini sonic project. “Tom knew there was a market for it.”

Together, they built 40 units for in-house use in contract drilling. “He understood design,” Smith continues. “He had a thorough understanding of the technology as well as business acumen.” Today, the smaller sonic does a larger portion of environmental work than the bigger units.

Personal Legacy
Seeing the need for the highly profitable mini was his “greatest move,” Maher believes, but might not have been his last. According to Smith, Oothoudt was working on a sonic wireline system similar to the method used for diamond core drilling. “It would have been a game changer.”

Remembered as competitive and committed to improvements in the industry, Oothoudt’s greatest legacy includes a personal angle, Despres observes. “Business was very important, but he was always there for his family.” His sense of balance kept his family and his drilling team focused on the important things in life.