I flipped the switch that found the oil wells in the Middle East

Geophysical survey equipment designed while at Barringer Research. Image sourced: www.ffwdm.com

Most of us go right through life without knowledge of the unseen forces that control both our universe, and our daily lives. We imagine things like sun-spots and the earths magnetic field to be of no consequence.

How wrong we all are.

I found out shortly after W.W.2. when I applied for my first job after demob from the British army. With a City and Guilds diploma in Electronics under my belt, I joined Hunting Geophysics, London in 1954 as an electronics technician. My task was to install specialized geophysical exploration equipment into an aircraft, and to survey the earths crust from the air for the very first time.

Apart from general knowledge and the use of a compass, I had no idea that the earth`s magnetic field was an important factor in the detection of mineral deposits beneath the earths crust.

Prospectors since the early 1800’s had set up ground magnetometers and taken readings over vast scrublands in their constant search for mineral wealth. Their task was time consuming, expensive and often dangerous. To be able to fly over land-masses and take accurate magnetic readings was a prospectors dream come true.

Now, that dream was about to happen, for the first prototype airborne geophysical survey equipment had already been developed in Canada by a subsidiary of the Company.

I flew off to Toronto and worked with the designer Viano Rhonka, an electronics design engineer just emigrated from Finland, and together installed the electronic consoles into the fuselage of an amphibian aircraft known as a Canso, a converted Catalina to be precise.

There were snags, lots of them, for the principles of electro-magnetics demand the use of a coil, energized by an electric current that would produce a large enough electric field to penetrate the earths crust. Strung from wing to tail section, the Federal Aviation Authority took one look at our monstrosity and shook their heads.

A thumbs down for us, and we went back to the drawing board. A new epoxy resin had come onto the market, and using this we encapsulated the coil allowing an aerodynamic look which was acceptable.

Our aircraft was allowed to fly with certain limitations.

Flying test surveys over Eastern Canada proved to be highly successful in all geophysical spheres, including the use of a scintillometer for measurements of radio activity. All measurements were plotted onto a six channel pen recorder and a Vinten survey camera, taking shots at one per second, recorded the path of the aircraft. Geology would never be the same again.

My task was far from over. With the knowledge I acquired from our Canadian subsidiary, I flew back to London and proceeded to install the geophysical equipment into the worlds favorite aircraft, the humble D.C.3.

Her registration was G-AMYW. We called her “The Yankee Whisky.”

Working in a hangar at Heathrow, we were dogged with misfortune from the start. Again, that three turns of cable making up the electro magnetic coil gave us problems. The epoxy resin used in its encapsulation just wouldn`t set. It hung in one sticky mess from wing to tail, sagging like a clothesline in some back yard.

Of course, we might have known. The air temperature in the hangar bordered on freezing and the resin needed a good twenty degrees Celsius before it would set. Frantic to get the job done, we bought a dozen electric fires and spaced them strategically around the coil. It set, not quite rock hard and allowed for a little elasticity to cater for vibration.

Our D.C.3. was ready for a test run. We managed to get the geological records from a magnetic survey completed on the Isle of Man. Using a ground magnetometer, three geologists had taken just over two years to complete the task. Flying from Blackpool, and discounting three days of rain, the Yankee Whisky completed the geological survey of the island in two days. Comparing our data with that of the ground crew, we found that our readings were within five per cent of each and every anomaly recorded.

We were jubilant.

Filmed in action we found ourselves the center of attraction on the British Gaumont News screen. The Duke of Edinburgh was invited to attend our inauguration party. He shook my hand briefly, “Why do you need a radio altimeter?” he asked. I was pretty sure he had done some homework before attending the show. “There are several reasons Sir, but mainly because it doesn`t depend on atmospheric pressure.”

He moved on without a word.

Our crew of four, pilot, navigator, electronics technician and flight engineer hosted many dignitaries. Flying with us on test surveys I have fond memories of Haile Sellasie, The Lion of Judah, throwing up all over our decking. The turbulence together with the incredible noise (all carpeting and trim had been removed) was enough to turn most stomachs.

Eager to exploit the possibilities of enormous wealth beneath their sandy shores, Governments of Bahrain, Persian Gulf, French Sahara and many more countries plus several Mining Houses called on Hunting Geophysics to survey vast stretches of unexplored territory.

Looking back on those incredible times and remembering the intolerable heat, the dreadful metallic din within the cabin of the aircraft and the pools of sweat that ran onto the aluminum decking at our feet, I don’t think any of us air-crew really understood the true significance of our mission.

Surveying for oil, or as a geologist might put it, a sedimentary basin, our instruments would detect the sudden lack of magnetic intensity. In fact, an anomaly in reverse. The sudden squiggle of the pen recorders as our magnetometer flew above the sea of sand below, and our flight path accurately photographed was all that was needed for the oil crews to start drilling.

What really irks me today is pulling up at my local petrol station and calling,

“Fill her up!”


Geoffrey Kennell
Off the cuff

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