A look back at 50 years of change

Dave Airey looks back on what he has done during his career to be named the 2019 recipient of the British Drilling Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award and how working practices have improved over the 50 years he has been in the industry.

Dave Airey
 David Airey (right) receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from Martyn Brocklesby, chair of the British Drilling Association

David Airey (right) receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from Martyn Brocklesby, chair of the British Drilling Association

After more than 50 years in the ground investigation industry, I was proud to be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Drilling Association (BDA) late last year.

Today, I am the commercial director at Concept Engineering Consultants, however, I started my career as a lab technician in 1966, in the soil mechanics section of the ground engineering division of the Cementation Company at Maple Cross, Rickmansworth.

After almost three years in the laboratory gaining experience in all routine testing and sample descriptions, I progressed to site technician carrying out site testing, specialist sampling, installation, monitoring and surveying on sites throughout the UK and overseas.

By 1974 I had become contracts controller and later assistant contracts manager, at Maple Cross where Cementation was operating up to 26 in-house cable tool rigs and eight rotary drills. Unfortunately, Cementation closed its soil mechanics section down in 1978, something which became a trend with less major projects, more regionally-based competition and the emergence of sub-contract drillers and companies.

Following the closure, I spent a year as plant coordinator in Cementation's piling and foundations department before leaving to join Ground Engineering as contracts manager - an opportunity to use my experience with a smaller but technically expert company.

At the time of joining, Ground Engineering was involved in interpretative reporting work for the Department of Transport ERCU on the M25 and provided in- house geotechnical advice for its parent company John Laing. It was operating up to seven in-house Pilcon wayfarer rigs and one rotary drill and these were supplemented with sub-contract rigs until 1984 when it was decided to stop operating in-house rigs. Some were retained with two of the in-house drillers operating them on a sub-contract basis with all other drilling sub-contracted.

During my time there I was responsible for many projects including work for BAA at Stansted and Gatwick airports, motorway projects and more. I also developed the company's limited access capability, identifying a niche market and with Les Beckwith came up with the idea of adapting modular cable tool rigs and crawler dumpers to use on cutting and embankment slopes.

During the early ‘80s work on contaminated sites started to appear, which was new and a little unknown. It was a case of learning as you go, with Ground Engineering undertaking an increasing number of jobs. I also assisted Mike Beeby and Bob Skinner in developing the BDA drillers Accreditation Scheme.

Ground Engineering went through a number of name changes and periods of restructuring, finally becoming Laing Technology Group and with redundancy looming I took up the position of contracts manager at Exploration Associates' High Wycombe office, becoming regional manager in 1996. Exploration Associates changed ownership in 1992 from private to Northumbrian Water Plc and then acquired by Mowlem plc (who owned Soil Mechanics) in 1997 - thus combing two largest GI companies at that time. Soil Mechanics closed the Exploration Associates office moving staff to Soil Mechanics' Wokingham office. The Soil Mechanics and Exploration Associates trading names were used for some time then only Soil Mechanics under division name of Environmental Services Group (ESG), which included other companies like TES Bretby (primarily a contamination testing company), CL Associates (Environmental Consultancy), etc. Mowlem was bought by Carillion and ESG division acquired by Inspicio plc, then acquired by 3i becoming Environmental Sciences Group.

Not ready to retire

After another bout of restructuring in 2013 my position was made redundant and, at 62, not being ready to retire gracefully it was time to ring a few contacts. When Milan Dedic, who I've known for many years, said I should come and work for him I found myself at Concept Engineering Consultants working four days a week in the role of business development manager. Concept was already working on South Bank Place and shortly after I joined secured some major and high-profile GI projects including work for London Underground and airport projects. The company had limited in-house plant but had a strong and dedicated workforce and it was here that I truly found my place with the freedom to use my initiative to develop markets.


The addition of a Massenza Mi8 to the fleet was one of the changes that occurred after Airey joined Concept Engineering Consultants


Until 2014, Concept had been reliant on hiring in rotary drill rigs before the decision was made that to service the demand for high-quality coring using Geobore ‘S' and multipurpose drilling the business needed its own rigs. A new track-mounted Massenza Mi8 was purchased and shortly after a Comacchio C450P, Boart Longyear DB520 and a Geotec TB350 were added. These acquisitions were followed by a property in Coventry in 2015, where it now has a modern testing laboratory, office, warehouse and stores.

Operational changes

Over the years I have seen significant changes in plant, working conditions and how the UK GI industry operates. At Cementation in the late ‘60s, cable tool rigs were not too dissimilar to those used now but many of the older 1t Pilcon Wayfarers had no over-ride braking system so could not be towed on the road. A flatbed lorry would be used to move them with the operating crew travelling in the cab with the driver or in their own car as company transport was not provided. On arrival at the site, the rig would be unloaded down metal skids by the driller precariously stood on the rig frame operating the winch handle and brake - not allowable now.

The key welfare facilities were another area that would today be unacceptable, comprising of a sectional 8ft x 6ft timber shed with a wooden toolbox inside along with a gas comfort heater and Tilley lamp connected to a propane gas bottle stored outside. In summer some crews would sleep in the shed; one on the toolbox, the other on the floor to save on the weekly lodging allowance.

In summer some crews would sleep in the shed; one on the toolbox, the other on the floor to save on the weekly lodging allowance

During the late ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a lot of Department of Transport and County Council GI schemes that kept many companies busy. At this time Cementation began renewing its plant purchasing road-towable Dando 150 and Pilcon 1500 cable tool rigs having secured the Greater London Council term contract.

It also expanded and improved its rotary drilling capability replacing rigs which were direct-drive spindle type through chucks, Craelius XC90, Boyles BBS10 or similar mounted on skids or on slow and unreliable ex-military Bedford trucks or towed by ex-military 3t Austin K9 trucks, with new top drive Dando 250s on Ford trucks and Craelius B40Ls on new Bedford trucks, in addition to a tractor-mounted Hands England HE36, D4 track-mounded B40L and smaller hydraulic Edeco 36 and 40s which were skid or truck-mounted. These new rigs were able to use larger diameter coring equipment including triple tube barrels.


David Airey has seen little change on the design of cable drill rigs over his 50 years in the industry


There has been little change in cable tool boring rig design over the last 50 years apart from alterations to comply with health and safety legislation. Any new cable tool rig has to prove its capability in the field and with the number of old-style rigs still in the industry and potential cost restraints it may be a few years before any new design makes an impact.

On the other hand, rotary rigs have seen significant design changes. When I started the majority of GI rotary rigs were direct mechanical drive spindle type, whereas, now top drive hydraulic rigs and multi-purpose dynamic sampling/rotary coring rigs are the norm. The switch was mainly driven by industry requirements for reliable, cost-effective rigs capable of hole construction using a wide range of drilling techniques and greater health and safety.

It is important that specification, operational and safety improvements continue to be made as drill crews should have modern, efficient and safe plant to work with, which should result in better quality, production and profitability.

I think now we are all more aware of ground and groundwater contamination and the environmental impact investigation and drilling works have

I had not been aware of geoenvironmental investigations until I started investigating contaminated sites for brownfield developments in the early 1980s. This sector has seen substantial growth and few investigations these days are complete without some geoenvironmental sampling, monitoring and testing requirements. This, in turn, has led to the development of techniques such as window sampling, dynamic sampling, an increase in trial pits clean drilling techniques to protect aquifers, and the introduction of sonic drilling. I think now we are all more aware of ground and groundwater contamination and the environmental impact investigation and drilling works have.

I recall over water drilling in shallow waters and the Thames was done from uni-flote pontoons, converted barges and spud leg barges. Now self-elevating jack-up platforms with varying leg lengths have made the construction of boreholes in nearshore and tidally affected waters easier and safer.

The range and type of monitoring equipment has developed and increased, too with automated instrumentation that is easier to handle, and which offers remote monitoring. UXO desk studies and on-site mitigation are now common as are GPR surveys to trace buried services in advance of exploratory hole construction.

Health and safety

Improved health, safety and welfare driven by changes in legislation has also been adopted by the industry. When I started work basic site welfare, even hot running water, was virtually non-existent. You were issued with overalls, a pair of PVC coated gloves, a pair of wellington boots (no steel toe caps or arch support), a company-branded donkey jacket and, if it rained, a set of ineffective yellow PVC waterproofs which did not breath and whose seams regularly split.

Safety boots and helmets did not appear until the late ‘70s either and it took some time to enforce their use with drillers who said they were uncomfortable. Now drill crews are provided with good welfare facilities and quality workwear and PPE, and we have health monitoring programmes like Constructing Better Health. A massive improvement over 50 years ago.

On a personal note, I have been involved in safety issues since the ‘80s including the production of task-specific RAMS, morning briefings and task-specific toolbox talks. In more recent years, major clients such as CTRL, Crossrail and HS2 have been driving forward changes and improvements in health and safety and the more open and honest reporting of incidents and near misses and a willingness to raise concerns is a significant improvement on where the industry was.

It is nearly 20 years since the BDA first introduced the Driller Accreditation Scheme, prior to this drillers had no proof of competency or formal training and in 2000 the NVQ for drillers was established followed in 2005 by the BDA's annual audit.

Sadly, however, some clients and consultants do not police the "yellow book" requirement for BDA audited lead drillers and I have seen some cable tool drillers operating rigs in public areas without protective fencing, not digging starter pits, etc. While most reputable contractors follow safe working and legislation they can lose opportunities for work where clients and engineers consider price first.

Youth development

At Concept, we employ engineers and geologists of both genders and many nationalities. However, like many companies in the GI sector, we sometimes struggle to recruit and retain young people. There are many reasons why, which most are aware of and GI contractors can struggle to allow people to develop a wide range of expertise. Young engineers sometimes find it takes too long to develop and gain the experience needed for promotion and simply move on or leave the industry, but some stay and become valuable members of staff.

The drilling industry is a bit like Marmite you either love it or hate it

The drilling industry is a bit like Marmite you either love it or hate it. Those that love it tend to stick around for a long time. and those that hate it move into another sector. Having spent over 50 years in the industry, I am definitely the former. I have had a long and varied career and learnt from many good people. Yes, there have been ups and downs, but it has allowed me to have the ‘craic' and build long-term friendships with many people. I hope some of my past advise and help has rubbed off and they can call on me in the future.

There have been many highlights during my time in the industry, being made a director of Concept in 2016 is one of the more recent. However, the most pleasant was in 1972 when Len Threadgold sent me to St Vincent, in the West Indies, on secondment to the Crown Agents. The people were friendly and happy, even the labourers who had no PPE, worked barefoot and lived in corrugated iron shacks, I could have a swim in the warm sea after work and was there to see the Carnival.

I have enjoyed my time in the industry and maybe I have been lucky but if stealing some of Steve Tomlinson's words, you want to work in an industry that allows you to travel, meet new people all the time, work with talented people, constantly challenge you, occasionally frustrate you and give you a job with endless variations and lots of fun I would certainly recommend it. If you want a nine to five job, home every night, a nice warm office, minimal stress and little variation look elsewhere.

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