Drillers have a special talent for grabbing what’s on hand and innovating to get the job done. Such is the case with Hefty Drilling in Anchorage, Alaska. Terrain and weather challenge the best crews. The remoteness of the 49th state, particularly before widespread Internet, makes resourcefulness a necessity. Johnny Kay and the crews at Hefty show it.

The company developed a specialized drilling rig back in the ‘80s that shows that resourcefulness in action. The lightweight rig and has traveled mounted on tracks and tires, and gotten to remote jobs via barge or disassembled on a cargo plane. It’s far from the most powerful drill in the fleet. But some jobs call for a Swiss Army knife, and their custom “CH10” — named for original creator Curt Hefty — has that versatility.

We recently interviewed Kay at the National Ground Water Association’s 2019 Groundwater Week event in Las Vegas about the rig. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.

Q. First off, before we get to some of the features, tell me what were some of the problems you were trying to solve with building this thing.

A. My father-in-law actually started the rig, putting it together from various other drills, like an Ardco mast and top head, and started out with an Ingersoll Rand air compressor. He got the 375 series with the Deutz air-cooled diesel for light weight. He really built this thing to be flown in the back of a cargo plane to remote villages.

Q. So that was really the thrust of it? Alaska’s a rugged place and you needed something rugged that could go anywhere.

A. Yeah. I mean back in the mid-’80s, early to mid-’80s, there was really nothing kind of like that. He kind of had the market on that to start out with.

Q. How long has this rig been in service?

A. Since the early ’80s. I mean we’ve been modifying it over the years, of course, for different jobs we go to. You modify it for different situations. 

Q. What are some of the, I guess, atypical features of this machine, and how have those helped you get into these remote areas?

A. The first thing is being lightweight. We just have the necessities on it for ease of transport. We’ve recently been putting it on trucks. We’ve had more jobs where it’s able to be barged in, which makes it easier because now we can haul our rods on the rig. We don’t have to hand carry anything.

Q. Tell me a little bit about the capabilities. What does it look like when it’s performing for you? 

A. The deepest I think we’ve drilled was probably in the 240-foot range, 6-inch diameter.

Q. Is that is that typical water well depth for Alaska?

A. It is. Well, actually, when you get around the coast, 40-footers … are kind of, I wouldn’t say average, but 40 to 100 maybe. 

Q. What kind of material are you are you dealing with up there? 

A. Glacial till and silt and gravels. 

Q. Are there any modifications that you’ve done that are specific to that kind of geology?

A. In our drill system, we use a different type of drive shoe, since our rig is so small that it doesn’t have too much for pullback. Because we use telescoping screens, we use an inside drive shoe ... so you don’t have a drive shoe hanging out where it’s hard to pull back. That’s one of the modifications we use. We use a downhole hammer for drilling instead of a tricone or anything like that.

Q. Were you raised in the business?

A. My father-in-law started the business, of course, in the late ’70s and I started dating his daughter in high school. I didn’t have a job at the time, so he put me to work. I was 20 years old at the time.

Q. Are you involved in the industry, for example with any associations?

A. We belong to, of course, the NGWA and the Alaska Water Well Association. I’m past president [of AWWA] now. But I was the president for the last few years.

Q. As far as this rig goes, tell me about a really challenging job.

A. Sure. One of our jobs was in Mekoryuk. It’s on Nunivak Island — a volcanic island [about 30 miles off Alaska’s west coast]. The barge service only runs twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. It actually tied our rig up for a full season. The job wasn’t challenging. We were only there for four days. But it just getting there, you know.

Q. What kind of conditions are you dealing with? A lot of us lower-48 folks don’t have a concept for what weather conditions might be like in Alaska.

A. We do a lot in the Bristol Bay area and Dillingham, and our last job out there was at Pilot Point. We went out there in the fall. That’s when the storms are coming through and it’s blowing 40 knots and raining.

Q. From driller’s perspective, what do you brag about when you talk about this rig?

A. I guess the light weight of it and the ease of mobilization. It works really good for — I mean we got it set up for what we do. Since we only use 10-foot casing rod, it’s easier for handling. When you’re out there, you’ve got to do a lot of lifting.

Q. You ever get the truck-mount stuck?

A. Oh, yeah. Usually at villages they’ll have some equipment or something, where they  can build us a road or pull us out.

Q. What are what are some of the challenges of drilling up in Alaska that folks down here might not be able to wrap their head around?

A. Occasionally, we get into boulders, but I’m sure they go through that out here too. We sometimes get into heaving sands.

Q. Do you deal with much wildlife?

A. Not usually. I mean we do see the occasional moose, stuff like that, but moose really don’t bother you. When we were out at Ivanof Bay, I guess that’s a pretty big bear population, but we didn’t see any bears out there. But we did bring guns if we needed them.

Q. This barge, is this something that your company owns or do you rent or lease it?

A. We just use their service.

Q. And same with the cargo plane?

A. Yeah, we just call.

Q. Do you have other rigs in your fleet or is this just your star girl?

A. Well, this one actually is one of the main moneymakers just because of what it is and where it goes. But we do have big rigs. We have Schramms and Atlas Copcos.