Oilfield Pumpers: What constitutes an emergency?

Okay so, not too long ago, I was restarting a Fairbanks 503 after it had gone down overnight. Anyone who has performed this function on these very solid old engines also knows that if they are really relics, they are super hard to restart. Some people find them easier to kick start and I have done that once. But those huge bull wheels require a lot of strength and I usually used my foot. When it caught, well it would give a little kick and if you weren’t just really fast, it could grab your foot, which would almost certainly constitute a true emergency. So I avoided this since after all, if that wheel grabbed my foot, it would be the kind of emergency that was really, no longer an emergency if you know what I mean.

When reviewing an article here at GreaseBook, don’t mistake what you are doing here as work. No way is this work.

This week enjoy; “Facing your enemies”, a real life story about someone who will make you see your idea of what is an emergency differently.

Facing Your Enemies

In Chapter 2 B-1 of the Lease Pumper’s Handbook the Marginal Well Commission talks about what constitutes an emergency and who and when to call someone. I like this discussion because if there was anything in training that was really not covered it was when to call your company man and report something. Those guys can get bristly when they get bothered too much. But fail to call them just once when a well explodes and boy they never forgive you. Nevertheless, I suggest you read this chapter very carefully. Besides safety, I can’t think of anything more important.

In the handbook it states an emergency is anything that is happening that will cause an undesired outcome or result. This is pretty broad language. But it’s a good start. If I have learned anything in the oilfield it is this; there is no end and I mean truly no end to the various and sundry things that can happen in this industry.

If it can pop off, crack open, freeze shut, work when it’s not supposed to, stop working at the most inopportune time and implode or explode, it is in the oilfield. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the sometimes amazingly stupid things us pumpers decide to do because “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

It was a beautiful clear Sunday in April. I had just started my new job at Sheridan Production. I had probably been there about two weeks. With an exemplary background, I had been entrusted with a brand new pickup. It was nice, shiny and pretty plush for a pumper. I was in the vast expanses of Beaver County checking a well there that is at the very least 40 minutes from our office in Laverne.

I was getting gas chart readings when I noticed a hissing sound and realized a Kimray back pressure control valve was ruptured and leaking quite a bit of gas over by the separator. Now, as I write this I am still wondering in the back of my mind why I felt this was so important. I think it was my background in the field of CO2 flood pumping where every leaking valve was followed up in about five minutes with a major explosion or rupture. More on that later…

You add that experience to the fact that I spent four tours in a war zone where quick action was key to survival and I guess I have my answer. At any rate, I sort of panicked. Not a lot but had this general feeling that I needed to hurry over there in my truck and check it out and maybe shut an inlet valve to it. So I jumped in Shiny, my new truck, backed up (see, this is where things turn ugly) and backed into a fence post, crushing the driver’s side rear panel.

dent-in-pumpers-truck
Okay. So this is an emergency…kind of.

After a level of cussing that later that week had me in confession with my priest for about 20 minutes, I got out of the truck and took a look. I knew I had to call my boss and yet I would have rather had a root-canal. It was our policy that any accident had to be reported. So I made the call.

He was all suited up on this gorgeous day to go for a motorcycle ride with his wife. He was not happy. The truth is, I don’t think he ever really forgave me for that. It started our relationship off badly and it sort of just always had this black cloud hanging over it from that point. He did though, tell me once that I was the best lease operator he had and that felt good but he still was mad about that truck.

In hindsight, none of that is really important. It was painful yes. But not important. What’s important is that we all need to take one extra second to understand what is an emergency and requires our quick action and what does not.

That leaking Kimray in no way deserved any quick action from me.  

My tiny emergencies though, were really basically nothing compared to my father’s comrade in arms and longtime friend and Medal of Honor winner Colonel Leo Thorsness. You can read about in his book “Surviving Hell”. Now that…that is a real emergency.

You see, he was in Vietnam at the same time my father was. The two were doing highly risky flights in F-105s over North Vietnam. On April 30th 1967 my dad’s friend was shot down over North Vietnam. He ejected at over 600 miles per hour and then was shot at by the enemy as his parachute carried him toward his captors. He spent more than six long, horrible years as a prisoner of war. He was tortured because he refused to give in to the enemy and pass them the information they wanted. Leo is a friend of my fathers and as such he is a good friend of mine.

In fact, in 1967 through 1974 when he came back home to his wife Gaylee, I wore his POW bracelet, which was a simple band of pot metal with his name and his dates of capture inscribed upon it – a thing probably long forgotten by most people. I wore it through college and even though he was back, I wore it well after having my daughter Johnna so that when I found myself in something I thought was an emergency, like waiting at a red light that was taking too long, I would remember what a real emergency looked like. But more about Leo in a bit.

Right now, let’s talk about some basic concepts you will need to know when deciding whether or not to call your boss to an “emergency” on a Sunday in the three minutes before he is about to get on his Harley and go for a much needed ride.  

When I started full time in the oilfield it was on a CO2 and water flood project. This is what is known in the Pumper’s handbook as “enhanced production” and it is a much later chapter. But basically there are a lot of oil reserves that exist in what used to be thought of as old, “played out” formations. The oil hides between the fissures and rocks in a formation but is no longer naturally flowing into the casings of conventional wells. By using pressurized water and CO2 to wash through that formation, that water and CO2 washes those reserves out of those little fissures and rocks so that the oil flows to the well casing where your artificial lift system (either a pumping unit or submersible) picks it up. So, what looks like a regular pumping unit to a passerby is in no way normal. These wells function with tubing pressure that is much higher than conventional wells and so everything you do is different and chock full of possible emergencies.

For instance, when stuffing box rubbers give way on these pumping units, the effect is a geyser of oil shooting 10 to 15 feet into the air. Not an emergency. You just walk over there, release the back pressure on the tubing, call a truck to hook up to your well (you have to do this on most CO2 wells to change stuffing box rubbers because there is no such thing as blowing that well down) and change out the rubbers.

It is important for you as a pumper to be brave and know when to make what we in the military refer to as a command decision and then be willing to take any possible heat there might be coming your way for it when you do. This was one of those times. Does it cost money to call a truck? Yes it does. But it is infinitely worse to have to report an oil spill.

So here is my advice: Any emergency that might call into question your character, like my truck accident, you need to call it in.

If there is a leaking this or that, or a tiny explosion, deal with it first and then call it in.  For instance, if you have allowed a tank to run over, which is almost a firing offense in this industry, call a truck, get it cleaned up and then call in your mistake. Do not wait to get a hold of someone. Get the oil off the ground. You’re in trouble anyway. You might as well be in trouble for the clean up too. It’s the right thing to do.

Then there are the big emergencies. So again, there I was, driving onto my lease in the CO2 flood at Perryton, Texas. I round the corner to see a 16 inch column of oil shooting 30 feet in the air. The three phase, horizontal separator has been blown at least 20 feet off its foundation and I immediately know what has happened. I’m poised to jump into action and grab my 36 inch pipe wrench to shut down the well head.  But before I do, I call my boss because this is clearly going to place me in grave danger and I let him know what I am doing and what has happened. “Chad,” I said. “Something very bad has happened at the #3183. Get over here. I am shutting it in.”

For weeks before this took place I had noticed that the wellhead (all the tubing and casing topside) was regularly frozen with like three inches of ice covering it. I told my bosses, “Look, I think this CO2 injection well is directly communicating with this wellhead and I worry about metal fatigue on that wellhead from it being frozen so much.” My bosses had just spent hundreds of thousands refracking that well and did not want to hear this. They said, give it a little time. But with like 2,000 pounds on the tubing, I worried every time I went near that wellhead and cared for all the equipment on that lease. I am just glad that I wasn’t standing next to that separator when it blew. But on this day I had to approach that wellhead that had ALREADY shown its ugly side and force the valve shut. I was not at all sure it wouldn’t just take me with it.  

In the oilfield emergencies are going to happen every single day. Most of them will be little ones. But if there is one character trait that is needed in a pumper it is the one that allows you to nimbly judge which of these you can and need to handle first and then report or which ones you need to immediately report and then do what you can to contain.

And that is what my friend Leo Thorsness did when he punched out of his F-105 over North Vietnam that day in April, 1967.

“It was a clear beautiful day,” he told me on the phone recently about that fateful day that he was shot down in his F-105 Thunderchief. It would be the beginning to 6 years as a POW.

But how he handled those moments up to his capture and his ability to make decisions moment to moment saved his life. Here is a short excerpt from his book “Surviving Hell”;

“Harry and I knew the maximum ejection speed for an F-105 was 525 knots. But we knew of pilots whose Thuds had exploded while taking the time to slow down. We had decided that if we were ever hit we would eject immediately.

Fate

I shouted “GO!” Harry knew that if he hesitated to blow his canopy and I ejected before he did, my rocket would throw fire into the rear cockpit. He said “Shit!” and, as I heard his canopy blow and seat eject, I pulled my handle.

Vivid in my mind to this day is the feeling of catapulting into the slipstream doing nearly 600 knots (690 mph). My helmet ripped off, my body felt as though it had been flung against a wall, and my legs flailed outward. Two seconds later, the chute opened, violently yanking me upward. My body rotated a couple of times then settled into a float.

Falling down, I tried to take stock. When I cleared the cockpit, the wind had apparently caught my legs and forced my knees straight sideways at a 90 degree angle. My boots were still on but the little pencil sized zipper pockets on my sleeves were ripped away. As I looked up at my chute, I saw that at least a quarter of the panels were ripped open: I would be slamming into the ground faster than normal – with destroyed knees.

One bright spot: a mile or two to the east I could see Harry’s chute. I did not know at the time but my wingman Bob Abbott had also been shot down by an Atoll…

We had ejected at about 10,000 feet and so had several minutes to float before we hit. Many thoughts I had then are still crystal clear today. I thought about my wife Gaylee and our daughter Dawn who were at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada…I felt devastated for what my wife and daughter might be forced to endure. My floating down thought was: “If I’m killed when I hit the ground, will they ever find out?” I felt guilty, too: reasoning that I had failed them. I was putting them in what could be years of limbo…

I was still 2,000 to 3,000 feet in the air when something in a small darker area in the jungle caught my eye. I concentrated and realized it was muzzle flashes. They were shooting at me!

As I entered the canopy of jungle, I remembered to cross my legs. Branches banged and slapped as I readied to hit hard on bad knees. Suddenly I stopped, bounced a bit and hug still. I looked up and saw that my chute had hung on a dead branch. I was maybe 40 feet off the ground. Just to my right was a small stand of bamboo. I swung to reach for the stalk, thinking to grab hold, undo my chute release and shinny down to the ground. But I couldn’t get a grip on the bamboo. We carried a one-inch-wide nylon lanyard in our g-suit for just this situation. I finally got it out, tied it above the quick releases. I used 10 valuable minutes getting to the ground.

I was part way up the side of a mountain. My knees buckled each time I tried to stand. Thuds continued to fly over my downed position but I doubted they could see me through the trees. I tried one more call on my emergency radio – both my transmission and theirs were so garbled I could not make out words.

I heard voices below me. I crawled on all fours up the hill. The going was slow; they were gaining on me. A Thud flew over and the bad guys took cover. I crawled faster, hoping to find a clearing before they found me. If they had an opening, the Thuds could strafe the jungle around me, hold back the bad guys and maybe, just maybe, a chopper would show up to pluck me out.

But there was no opening and no helicopter. Knowing I was theirs, the North Vietnamese hollered excitedly when they drew near. I rolled on my back to face them.”

– Rachael Van Horn

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