Remembering Noted Drilling Industry Innovator Carl Back
I was deeply saddened to belatedly learn of the passing of my friend, Carl Back. It seems he had a long life of 91 years and I guess we should thank God we had him that long. But it is with sadness we realize he has passed. I knew Carl from his days with the Cyclone Drill Company and, as we were both drillers and graduate engineers, we had a lot in common. The Cyclone plant was a short day’s drive from where we usually held our Michigan association convention, so Carl would almost always come to the convention, many times bringing his wife Lillian. Lillian would sometimes do humorous readings as part of the banquet entertainment and she had us rolling in the aisles. They were a lovely couple, very friendly and outgoing, and I wish to extend my condolences to their son Jerry and other family members as I know Jerry from his trips to the NGWA convention.
In the days that I am remembering, rig manufacturers would often bring a new model rig or rigs to our convention just to show them off and show the advances in technologies they had made. I can remember conventions when we had more than 25 rigs on display, usually outdoors, from all the major manufacturers. Nowadays, we are lucky that we get one. I have been told that in 2016 a manufacturer will not bring a rig unless it has been sold. Such are the ways our economy has changed in the last 50 to 60 years.
In any event, Carl and I were at a convention and having a cold refreshment together after a day on the floor or perhaps out at the rig displays. He said to me, “John, we have got to figure out ways by which we can transfer the power of a drilling rig to the action of making a hole.” I’m sure we both understood what he meant and this is probably why a rotary drills so much faster than a spudder. Now you readers who are “spudder guys” don’t get in a tiz — remember John Schmitt has also been a “spudder guy.” But I think we can agree that a rotary will drill a lot faster than any spudder ever made. Carl then went on to tell a story that explained his premise. I told this to his son Jerry once and he said I had basically all the facts straight.
Carl, in his days as a driller for the family business, had drilled a good sized well on the banks of the Ohio River. He was setting a screen in this well by the telescope method. In this method of installation, if we had a screen we wanted to set between say 185 feet and 200 feet we would work our casing down to 200 feet, clean it out to the bottom, insert the screen with the bottom of the screen at the bottom of the casing and then pull the casing back 15 feet, exposing the screen to the aquifer. This was sometimes, however, easier said than done. All the spudders I ever ran were far more effective driving pipe into the ground than pulling it back out. Some drillers used a so called pulling ring and large hydraulics jacks to pull the casing back, but this usually required a couple of helpers. So, at least in Michigan, we usually tried to pull the casing back with the rig itself using a trip spear or perhaps a pipe pulling jars. If the casing was driven in tight and deep, pulling back using these tools was a slow and tedious process.
In drilling this well near the Ohio River, Carl had lowered his screen into the casing and was pulling it back and making very, very slow progress. After some time in the process, the operator of a large Caterpillar brand tractor drove up to the rig, got off, came over to Carl and asked him what he was doing. The operator and his tractor had been working on the same construction site. Carl explained that he was pulling the casing back and the tractor operator asked why he didn’t do it. Carl explained that the process was pretty slow and he was doing the best he could with this rig.
The tractor operator then asked Carl that if he used his tractor to pull the casing — and I think that Carl needed to go 10 feet or more — would Carl take the rest of the day off and go fishing. Somewhat taken aback, Carl said yes. The operator produced a huge log chain with giant links; he and Carl made several half hitches around the casing and put the hook of one end of the chain over the top of the tractor’s dozer blade. Without much effort the big “cat” pulled the casing back a number of feet and although Carl had to take several hitches with the chain, the casing was soon pulled back the required distance.
The tractor operator asked Carl as he unhooked the chain if Carl would keep his word and quit and go fishing. Carl said he would, capped the well and drove his service truck back to the family shop. Carl’s brother or someone else asked if he had broken down as this second person had been to the drilling site earlier and realized that Carl was going to be a long time pulling this casing. Carl explained the series of events and indeed went fishing for the day. He didn’t tell me whether he caught any fish or not. The story explains, though, how the huge power of the Caterpillar could be used to pull that casing and the lesser power of the spudder type rig could do it but at a much, much slower pace. Carl certainly had the right idea and some of his many designs working for Cyclone and others proved he understood.
To say that Carl was a near genius would not be an understatement. He came up with many innovative designs while employed by Cyclone and later working for others. He was a friendly, outgoing guy and while he was very smart I could not describe him as a “smart guy.” He was always willing to discuss an issue calmly and rationally, and I understand from others that if you had a problem with a Cyclone rig, it would be taken care of “right now.” Readers, don’t think this is an advertisement for the Cyclone Drill Company or its products. I’m just trying to explain what a truly bright and great guy Carl Back was; our industry is worse off for not having him with us anymore.
In my monthly weather report, we have had many weeks of extremely hot and dry weather with no rain. Our lawns, unless watered, turned a medium brown and went completely dormant. Recently, though, we have some good rain showers as we always do and the grass is rather green again. Irrigated farm crops look really strong and the non-irrigated type look very poor. Until next time, work safely and enjoy the efficiency of the rigs Carl Back and others designed.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.