If the Air Force recruiter I met in high school had told me I could jump out of airplanes and drill water wells around the world, I would have signed up immediately. And that is exactly what the 820 RED HORSE is trained to do.
The squadron, made up of 550 men and women, is responsible for rapid response to civil engineering and logistics needs around the world. The RED HORSE or Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer can go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything under nearly any condition.
I recently spent a week with the 820 RED HORSE at Nellis Air Force Base located just outside of Las Vegas. There were two main goals for the week. The first goal was to familiarize the men with their new drill rig and support equipment. The equipment consisted of a GEFCO 50K vertical drilling rig, 2,000-gallon Flatwater Fleet rig tender, Tri-Flo Solids Control unit, GEFCO-supplied 7.5 x 10 Mud Pump, GEFCO-supplied Sullair 1150-x-350 air compressor, Fann Mud Lab and a Geo-Loop grouter. One or two men were assigned to operate each piece of equipment during their drill shift.
Assigning the right person to each job was the second goal of the week. Airmen were assigned to the roles of driller, mud man, maintenance or drilling support during a 12-hour shift. The unit was led by Technical Sergeant Jason Caceres and mentored by experienced water well driller Master Sergeant Nathan Laidlaw. Caceres’ experience includes drilling rock in mining applications and Laidlaw has drilled geotechnical holes and for water state side, and in the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
It was up to them to assign the soldiers their new jobs and create a highly functioning drill crew. If any issues arose, Laidlaw and Caceres could count on Chief Master Sergeant Albert Robin, who has extensive experience in drilling and leading drilling units for advice and guidance.
We began the first day with a discussion about what we wanted to achieve for the week and how to do it safely. Caceres addressed the men to explain that the entire unit would walk around their new GEFCO 50K vertical drilling rig and complete a “pre-start” check that would be led by Chris Roberts and Dennis William of GEFCO. Once the check was complete, it was time to start up the rig. The men were excited, as if they were firing the engines on a new jet for the first time.
When the rig was started, Caceres had the men walk around it a second time to check for leaks or issues. It is hard to explain the feeling you get when you see 30 men methodically go over a drill rig like it’s a multi-million dollar jet, but it’s awesome. After the check was done and the rig was idling, the men completed similar walk-around checks on the rest of the water well drilling equipment. Then it was time to get dirty.
At this point, these clean-cut, well-dressed Airmen believed that drilling would be similar to jumping into an excavator and moving dirt and mud. I looked the troops in the eye and said, “It’s time to make some mud.” I explained that a good drilling fluid is built with pre-treated clean water, Wyoming sodium bentonite gel and specialty polymers.
The men used soda ash to pre-treat the water of calcium hardness and raise the pH to a 9.5. Next, they mixed Baroid Industrial Drilling Product’s Quik-Gel. The men slowly poured each bag of Quik-Gel into the hopper at two minutes per 50-pound bag. After 45 minutes, the Quik-Gel was mixed and it was time to check the mud’s fluid properties.
A second group of airmen set up the Fann Mud Lab. First, they checked the Marsh Funnel viscosity. This test uses the Marsh Funnel and a quart cup to indicate the viscosity of the mud in relation to water. Water has a Marsh Funnel viscosity of 26 seconds per quart at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. As the mud topped the quart line at 34 seconds, the airman moved the funnel off to the side and the rest of the mud ran down his leg. I smiled and said, “Drilling is a dirty job, but a fun dirty job.”
The rest of the men surrounded the mud lab and watched as we discussed what a 34-seconds-per-quart funnel viscosity means. After viscosity, we checked a few of the other mud properties: sand content, mud density and the filtrate test. We determined filtrate was at 25 cc over 30 minutes in a full area filter press. A good drilling fluid has a filtrate of 15 cc or less. To achieve these properties, we added 20 pounds of Baroid IDP’s Quik-Trol Gold LV.
By late afternoon of the first day, every airman on the drill site had splashes of drill mud on their fatigues. I explained to them that that is how you are indoctrinated into becoming a water well driller.
The following day, we started drilling, but something had changed. All the men had traded their fatigues for overalls and water-proof workwear. They were now indoctrinated and they looked like water well drillers. In fact, the attitude amongst the group was that of Christmas morning.
Caceres assigned the men into four groups. Each group would rotate throughout the day with the goal being that the men would spend time on the rig, solids control, rig tender and mud lab. Each new driller got a chance to turn the bit to the right. Starting out, we drilled five minutes a foot to allow each man a chance to understand the controls.
Throughout the week, the Airmen got some great experience making holes and asking questions about drilling fundamentals and technique. We introduced the group to proper site evaluation, site layout, air drilling, mud drilling, bit hydraulics, how to operate the solids controls unit, how to maintain a drilling fluid with solids control and equipment maintenance.
We had a great group of trainers teaching the RED HORSE Airmen. Bob Grimes, the inside sales manager of GEFCO, has 35 years of experience in the vertical drilling rig industry. He was able to teach the soldiers several quick tips that would have taken the men years to learn. The best lesson learned was “slower is faster.” A new driller needs to take his time and constantly watch the ever-changing formation. By the end of the week, Caceres and Laidlaw started to get an idea of where to assign each man.
The next mission will be to drill a well for the Air Force. The well is needed for fire suppression, and will be a great opportunity to watch and train the men to drill for water in a semi-controlled environment.
After a few more stateside training missions, the 820 RED HORSE water well drilling team will be deployed around the world. Some places will be hostile and others will not, but the goal will be the same: Provide potable water to places that do not have it.
In the past, the squadron was instrumental in the Middle East in getting U.S. forces in hostile environments potable water. These guys will deploy anywhere with the proper tools and equipment to be successful. It amazes me to think that I used to complain about having to set up my drill rig in a small lake cottage lot, while RED HORSE mobilizes to any point in the world.
The entire week of training was a great experience. I want to thank Laidlaw and Caceres for having us out to teach their men. It’s satisfying to watch a younger generation learn the skills of water well drilling. These men will be great assets to any drilling company in the future, and in the meantime, they are performing a great service for their country. We all owe them a debt of gratitude and respect.
The future of the water well drilling industry is something that we all need to think about. And, if I could complete my education all over again, I would sign up to be a water well driller in RED HORSE.