Discovery Drilling ships large equipment with Alaska Air Cargo

Drilling and obtaining soil samples across the 49th state

Discovery Drilling is based in Anchorage, Alaska. Founded in 1986, the company performs geotechnical and environmental soil sampling for a range of clients throughout the state of Alaska, often in remote and extreme locales. 

On the geotechnical side, soil analysis drilling is typically done for construction projects such as roads, bridges, buildings, and pipelines. Projects range in complexity, from oil pad structures on man-made islands to building site assessment in earthquake-prone areas.

On the environmental side, typical projects range from a subsurface fuel spill investigation at a gas station to injecting remediation chemicals into the ground to help clean up a spill.

Working in extremes of topography and weather

Engineers, geologists, and environmental scientists need to know what they’re up against, says Discovery Drilling General Manager DJ Wardwell. “If there’s ‘bad geology’ under a building site, it can cause foundational problems. In Alaska there’s a lot to consider in the subsurface. Temperature extremes can really affect soil composition. We can go from 70 degrees in the summer to well below zero in the winter. And if we’re working on the North Slope, there’s permafrost everywhere. Before a structure gets underway, geotechnical engineers need to check the subsurface. That’s where we come in. We take samples as deep as 100+ feet under the surface. When we are drilling, we’re not just making a hole, we’re advancing tools into the subsurface, conducting an investigation.”

Sergeant Keeter and DJ Wardwell
Discovery Drilling Vice President Sgt. Keeter Brown (left) and General Manager Gunnery Sgt. DJ Wardwell, in their U.S. Marine Corps days. This photo was captured on Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq, circa 2009.

“On the environmental side,” says Discovery Drilling Vice President Keeter Brown, “we’re mostly looking for contaminants. If there’s a fuel or chemical spill, for example, we take water and soil samples to see what’s in the ground. For instance, the chemical foam PFAS, which was widely used to extinguish fires at many airports and military installations, is now recognized as an environmental health hazard. And in those cases, where we are looking for the presence of that agent, it’s often an extensive process.”

Shipping big equipment by air

With the support of Alaska Air Cargo, Discovery Drilling is able to expand its geographic working range, says Keeter. “For example, we couldn’t work cost-effectively in Adak before. You’re at the far western edge of the United States, way out in the Bering Sea. The time constraints of trying to barge high-demand drill rigs and equipment by water to Adak just weren’t tenable. We’d have to tie up a valuable drill for several weeks, when the actual work was only a couple of days. And we’d have to build that cost into the budget, which drove the entire cost of a program way up.”

By partnering with Alaska Air Cargo, however, Discovery Drilling has been able to mitigate those challenges. “We had the mindset that Alaska Air Cargo couldn’t move heavy equipment, especially equipment with engines that required Dangerous Goods designations,” DJ says. “We just assumed there would be too much cost and overhead. Then we started poking around on their website and looking at container dimensions and experimenting with the breaking down of our modular drill rigs. And we discovered that our drill rigs’ modular pieces could fit into their containers perfectly! The cargo team actually loaned us one of their cargo containers to try different configurations to ensure we weren’t overlooking anything. This opened a quick and cost-effective method to get our bigger bulk items and equipment in and out of prohibitive places like Adak, and at highly competitive rates. It was a complete game changer for our business.”

Creating new business opportunities in new locations

Moving rigs around by air “essentially provides same-day service,” adds Keeter. “And when you consider the time factor, the cost is actually lower. It’s really opened up the state, especially in Southeast Alaska, where we can now fly big equipment in. Juneau used to be off limits for us; now it’s like our second home.”   

Discovery Drilling
Large drilling equipment can be shipped by air around Alaska, such as this mountaintop location in Kodiak.

Keeter says they often have “less than three weeks to get assets to remote locations. He explains, “That’s not a lot of time to move 15,000 pounds of equipment, and it takes a lot of planning. Alaska Air Cargo helps us with that; sometimes they’ll find another route to get things there sooner. I honestly can’t think of a time we’ve had to push a deadline for a scheduled project when shipping with them.”

Discovery Drilling
Extreme weather and remote locations are part of the job.

No-stress flight scheduling

“When you have drill equipment all over the state, the last thing you want to worry about is if you are going to get your equipment back on time or make your deadline,” says DJ. “But whenever we ship anything with Alaska Air Cargo, whether it’s a bottle of propane, a small replacement part, or an 8,000-pound drill rig, we have peace of mind. We can book in advance and know with a high degree of certainty that our equipment is going to get where it needs to be on time. There’s no ambiguity. No stress. They have flight technology to deal with bad weather the other carriers don’t. And if there is a delay, which is rare, we get a notification well in advance, so we have time to adjust and notify our clients. That reliability is amazing.

“With other carriers, we often drop off equipment for shipping and request a delivery date, and the answer we typically get is, ‘We’ll do our best and let you know.’ And then you’re lying in bed wondering if you’ll make your deadline. With Alaska Air Cargo, we are immediately given a booking when we drop off our freight, showing exactly when our equipment will arrive at its destination. We not only get peace of mind, but the ability to reliably plan our operations schedules and logistics.”

GoldStreak is irreplaceable

Discovery Drilling uses Alaska Air Cargo’s GoldStreak Package Express frequently for express shipping of smaller packages. “It’s invaluable for our business,” Keeter says. “For a decade we’ve relied on it for specialty tools, repair parts, etc. There is not a week that we don’t utter the word ‘GoldStreak.’ It’s so easy to use. If Alaska Air Cargo called us today and said, ‘We are discontinuing our GoldStreak service,’ we would have a panic attack.”

“We do a lot of infrastructure work on the North Slope,” Keeter says, “much of it requiring two crews working 12-hour shifts, nonstop, around the clock. There’s a lot of money at stake on these projects. Given the nature of what we do, pushing steel into the ground, it’s inevitable that sooner or later things are going to break. If we get a call from our field crew in the middle of the night with a breakdown, there are now 20 or more workers in the field at a standstill, staring at a non-operable machine until the repair part arrives. But with Alaska Airlines, we can take a part to the GoldStreak counter at 2 a.m. and get it to our guys within a few hours. It’s unbeatable.”

Discovery Drilling
Discovery Drilling in action in Kodiak.

Unique, personal, caring service

Both Keeter and DJ are big fans of Alaska Air Cargo’s customer service. “Their service surprised us a little,” says Keeter. “Alaska Air is such a large entity up here compared to other airlines, but their flexibility and customer service are off the charts. Using the previous example, Adak’s airport doesn’t have the personnel to accept dangerous goods for outbound shipments. But Alaska Air sent a trained DG agent from Anchorage to Adak to do the manifest work to get the shipment out. And it was no big deal; they just did it.”

Keeter cites additional examples. “I never really thought something like this could happen, but Alaska Air Cargo was kind enough to actually flag-stop a freighter for us in Ketchikan to drop off a drill rig that we urgently needed within 48 hours. This would not happen with any other operators.”

Expert training and relentlessly responsive staff

Keeter says Alaska Air Cargo’s call center is easy for booking. “I thought they would hate us because our dimensions are complex. Literally every part of interacting with Alaska Airlines has been wildly more convenient than we initially imagined. And dealing with hazardous material shipping is vastly easier than other carriers. They have solid training and documentation. Everyone follows the same rules and guidelines. It’s consistent. You know what to expect.”

“We are not their biggest customer by any means, more of a boutique client,” says Keeter. “But if we’re in a bind, we can send our sales manager, Shannon Stevens, a text and get amazing turnarounds – way above and beyond in terms of responsiveness and problem solving.”

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