We were standing in one of the five specially built desert trailers that comprised the Arabian American Oil Company's Structure Drill Camp 5 located in the southern part of the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. Frank Wilmore, Aramco geologist, was sifting a teaspoonful of rock chips from a small cotton sack into a sample dish.
"Rocks, $200 a sack—cost more than gold," commented Frank as he bent over his microscope to identify the rock sample. "You see, that rig out there drills about a hundred feet a day. We get a sample of the rock cuttings drilled by the bit every five feet—twenty little sacks a day. It costs about $4,000 a day to operate the rig and this camp. Figure it out!"
A hundred yards away a mobile drilling rig with a 97-foot derrick was drilling ahead, not for oil, but for geological information—the little sacks of rock cuttings.
During the past decade, Aramco's structure drill rigs have crisscrossed vast areas of the Arabian desert drilling exploratory wells which average about a thousand feet in depth. Over a thousand structure wells have been drilled—more than a million feet of hole in the earth! As the drilling bit chips away rock fragments, they are flushed to the surface by the drilling fluid which is circulated down the drill pipe and out through the bit, then up again between the drill pipe and the side of the hole. A vibrating screen separates the rock chips from the drilling fluid which is pumped down the drill pipe again, continuously circulating.
Frank transcribes his microscopic identifications of the rock fragments to a 'strip log' which presents a graphic picture of the various layers of rock penetrated. Plotting a number of wells then yields a cross-sectional presentation of the rock strata below the surface of the earth. From a study of this cross section, traps which could possibly contain oil are discovered. Finally, the million-dollar gamble comes when geological conditions are so favorable that a decision is made to drill a deep "wildcat" well.
The Exploration Department's many years' experience in desert operations has evolved equipment and organization well adapted to the difficult desert conditions: extreme heat and long supply lines over roadless, sandy wastes. Structure Drill Camp 5 is typical of other camps.
The five desert trailers with their huge, low-pressure sand tires and rugged undercarriages are parked in L-formation. The "office" trailer, an ingeniously compact unit, contains Frank's geology laboratory, office space for H. B. ("Red") Caudill, drilling foreman, and for Carl Barber, camp mechanic. Although the outside temperature is well over 100 degrees, the air-conditioner keeps the trailer fresh and cool. Fluorescent lights, running water, a short-wave radio transmitter and receiver (with a radio beam for aircraft), and even office-size desks and swivel chairs could almost make one forget he was in the desert, 500 miles from Aramco's headquarters in Dhahran—until he looked out the window at the sea of sand stretching to the horizon.
Five rooms in the 45-foot-long air-conditioned sleeping trailer provide bunks for ten men and about as much living space as a Pullman roomette. The dining trailer, with seats for twelve, also has a little library of paper-back books and current magazines. The spotlessly clean stainless steel kitchen, trailer-mounted, is equipped with an electric stove, a huge refrigerator and a freezer with space for 30 days' supply of fresh frozen vegetables, fruit and meat. The forward end of this trailer is partitioned off to provide two showers and wash basins.
The fifth trailer houses two diesel-driven generators, the energy source for the many camp comforts—air-conditioning, lights, radio, movies, refrigeration. Part of this trailer contains the mechanics' shop with power and hand tools, spare parts, and a battery charger.
"Supplying this camp is a king-sized operation in itself," you're assured by Caudill, a veteran of a dozen years in the Arabian desert drilling business. "We receive about 300 tons of material a month—drill pipe, lubricants, food, drilling mud chemicals, diesel fuel—about ten truckloads; and usually a ton or so by DC-3's, dispatched from Dhahran and from the Rub' al-Khali operating base, 'Ubaila."
These rugged aircraft, which land on a level gravel area near the camp, also transport personnel, and fly in frozen foods and urgently needed supplies.
Specially designed desert trucks, with 600-gallon fuel tanks, ten driving wheels, and fat low-pressure sand tires, require up to two weeks to make the round trip between the camp and 'Ubaila, and three weeks between the camp and Dhahran.
Saudi Arab drivers of the supply trucks are directed by a Saudi Arab convoy leader-mechanic, who maintains radio contact with 'Ubaila, and who draws, also, upon his own store of knowledge of how to navigate the trackless sands.
"And," Caudill noted, "all we have to show for all of this is a hole in the ground—and those little sacks!"
The preferred desert cars are half-ton pick-up trucks with four-wheel drive. Their incongruously large wheels and tires—actually, modified DC-3 aircraft tires—enable them to "float" over soft, shifting sands.
The advice from experts on desert transportation:
"If you can't get there in these powerful babies, you'd better stay home."
The drilling foreman, drillers, mechanic and geologist comprise the camp's American personnel; the remainder, Saudi Arabs, cover a diverse range of crafts: rig men, heavy equipment operators, cooks, welders, mechanics and drivers. The friendly, cooperative spirit that characterizes the Saudi Arab-American relationship results in a smooth-running camp and operation.
Every effort is made to provide reasonably pleasant living conditions in the hot, barren area. Excellent food, 16-millimeter versions of current movies, tape recorders, and the little rotating library all help.
But, camp life can unquestionably become rather monotonous during off-duty hours. The most popular pastime is probably the old-fashioned "yak" sessions which tend to center around the well being drilled . . . progress of the week's supply convoy . . . plans for the next "time off" or the next vacation.
One night, the shop-talk was too much for one crewman:
"I don't mind putting in my eight hours on the rig, but do we have to re-drill the well here in the trailer every night!"
When the well is completed, the husky, ten-wheel tractors will couple on to the trailers and drilling rig, and the whole community will roll across the desert to the next location.
Matter of fact, that's what was about to happen as this was written; and, if you want an idea of the kind of terrain they must travel, consider this:
If they could go in a straight line, the distance would be only about 100 miles. But, to get around impassable sand, and dunes 400 to 500 feet high, they must travel more than 700 miles—to get where they can fill more of the little sacks.