July 2022 Vol. 77 No. 7


HDD Hall of Famers Helped Shape Modern Industry

Jeff Awalt |Executive Editor 

John Hair and Frank Canon might have grown up on different sides of the HDD track, but they both made pioneering contributions to the future of the industry using specialized knowledge as a primary tool. 

Hair came to HDD and direct pipe installations by way of a civil engineering path and experience with challenging river crossings, both conventional and trenchless. Canon took his oilfield experience as a mud engineer and became a renowned educator on the use of drilling fluids in HDD. 

Underground Construction met with both of these 2022 HDD Hall of Fame recipients to discuss their unique careers and backgrounds from the early days of an industry they helped design. 


Hair was born into a river-crossing family in Baton Rouge, La. His father, Charles, had graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) with a civil engineering degree in 1942, just in time for World War II. As an Army engineering officer, he commanded a battalion that built pontoon bridges across European rivers for General George Patton’s advance in Germany. 

The younger Hair also enrolled in the civil engineering program at LSU and got an early taste of the pipeline industry when he took a summer job at his dad’s employer, Baton Rouge engineering firm Pyburn & Odom. 

“I got a job in the drafting room and subsequently I worked on a hydrographic survey party,” said Hair, who returned to the company each summer as a student. “That really gave me a foundation in what was involved in the pipeline industry, and particularly river crossings.” 

His experience didn’t encourage him to work in the industry – in fact, “I really didn’t want to,” he said – but he ended up going to work for Conoco’s Continental Pipeline Company after graduation as a management trainee. From there, he went to work at Gulf Interstate Engineering in Alaska and worked briefly in Philadelphia before moving to Texas. 

Meanwhile, Hugh O’Donnell, a colleague of Hair’s from Pyburn & Odom, had moved to Reading & Bates, after working at Titan Contractors with 2020 Hall of Fame Inductee Martin Cherrington, who helped pioneer HDD river crossings in California. At a chance meeting in Houston, O’Donnell offered Hair a job at Reading & Bates, one of the early adopters of HDD. 

A special session at the Underground Construction Technology Conference included HDD Hall of Fame awardees and co-moderators. Pictured are, left to right: Grady Bell, Frank Canon, Robert Carpenter and John Hair.
A special session at the Underground Construction Technology Conference included HDD Hall of Fame awardees and co-moderators. Pictured are, left to right: Grady Bell, Frank Canon, Robert Carpenter and John Hair.

“And that’s how I got involved in horizontal directional drilling in construction,” Hair said. 

Environmental benefits 

HDD began to displace dredge crossings about 40 years ago, Hair said, emphasizing the environmental benefits of the new approach. 

“I think a lot of people don’t realize what it was like to put a pipeline river crossing in before there was horizontal directional drilling,” Hair said, recalling that a Mississippi River crossing in those days had to be 25 feet below the bed. 

“That would involve the dredging of well over a million cubic yards just to put the pipe in. The environmental impact was massive,” he said. “The bank work was – well, you just wouldn’t believe it – and there were only a few pieces of equipment that could actually dredge a Mississippi River crossing. 

“Even at its worst, the environmental impact of an HDD crossing is not anywhere near what the best dredge crossing would be, and that goes for smaller waterways, too,” he added. 

Hair set out on his own in 1987, as Reading and Bates was shedding some divisions, and founded J.D. Hair & Associates (JDHA). His company would become a leader in the design of HDD pipeline crossings and a go-to firm for significant and challenging pipeline projects. But at the start, it consisted of himself, a phone and a used computer. 

“I just kind of borrowed an office from a friend and started calling people,” he said. 

One of his first clients was a former employer, who hired him for a project crossing the Euphrates River in Syria. “They needed somebody to go look at it, and I don’t think any of the guys who worked there wanted to travel to Syria,” he commented. 


The first contract that really put JDHA on the map came in 1990, when AT&T hired his three-year-old firm for a fiber optic project with numerous river crossings, from Kansas City, Mo., to Omaha, Neb. He brought his brother, Shaun, in to help on the job, which involved not only the hydrographic survey, but also the technical work and construction monitoring, including gas inspections. 

That project – accomplished with help from a former Pyburn & Odom crew – helped draw new business to the young firm and gave Hair the confidence to start hiring new engineering graduates to handle the growing workload. 

Hair said his work served as a bridge between contractors and designers, and modestly describes it as “somewhat of a minor role.” 

“I think people should recognize that what really fueled the development of this industry was the initiative and just the grit of the crews in the field. I was constantly amazed at how a setback would not shut a job down. 

“It takes a lot of skill, and that skill was brought to bear by the cadre of craftsmen that we have in our country,” he added. “I think that’s what our industry should really be proud of, and something that deserves to be recognized.” 

Hair retired in 2018 after nearly 50 years in the industry and facilitated an employee buyout of his company. 

J.D. Hair & Associates was acquired in 2021 by Michels Trenchless, part of Michels Corporation. It operates today as a subsidiary of Michels Trenchless, partnering with Michels while also working independently with customers to provide design and engineering solutions. 


Canon’s unusual path to the drilling industry was rooted in retail and launched with the help of some baby furniture. 

He was managing a Houston store named Kid’s County when he ran into a former neighbor and coworker one weekend. The man had just landed a job as a Baroid mud engineer making $850 a week with a company car and an expense account. “Sounds good to me,” Canon said. 

By Monday, he was in the Baroid office where a manager looked over his resume. 

“It says here that you’re the manager of Kid’s County,” he said, explaining that his pregnant wife had her eye on an infant’s furniture set on sale at the store. 

“That night, they came to the store and bought the furniture set, and on Tuesday morning he called me and said, ‘Give your two weeks’ notice.’” 

Inauspicious start 

A natural born storyteller, Canon’s wit and homespun humor turned out to be a major asset as he grew to become what many in the industry consider to be the leading authority on drilling mud for HDD applications. But nobody would have guessed it on his first day at Baroid, now part of Halliburton. 

“On March 10, 1975, I showed up for work in Bay City, Texas, wearing a lime green, polyester, double-knit leisure suit, not having a clue I was going to be here 47 years later,” Canon said of his Hall of Fame award, sharing a favorite tale. “So, you know, I really feel honored. I don’t know why. I was just doing my job.” 

He started at Baroid as an oilfield mud engineer. His dad, an oilfield and pipeline motor engineer, told him always to have a pocket full of pencils. 

Canon covered all parts of the United States for Baroid and, in 1991, returned to Houston to assist with its newly formed Industrial Drilling Products Division. 

In 1992, he led the team that helped educate the growing HDD industry by giving mud schools around the world. “I really didn’t know what I was doing at first, but to be honest with you, nobody else did either. It was so new. You just had to figure it out,” he said. 

Volume training 

In 2000 alone, Canon helped train more than 4,000 people on the best use of drilling fluids for non-oilfield applications. His international work started in 2004. 

“Between 2004 and 2015, when I retired – I counted it up the other day – I had worked in 40 different countries and every state in the Union except Alaska,” Canon said. 

He worked in the cold of summer in Australia and the cold of winter in Siberia, but in all his travels he didn’t find a significant difference between locations. 

“You know, people used to think that going to Europe was kind of cool and sexy, but it’s sort of like going to Pittsburgh.” 

Canon’s retirement came on April Fool’s Day, which he says helps explain why his phone has kept ringing ever since. There are basically two types, he says: problem calls and planning calls. “It’s a lot easier to plan what you’re going to do, rather than call about the problem.” 

Many have underestimated the significance and complexity of mud applications in HDD work over the years. During the early days, he said, the big issue was getting contractors to use enough fluid. “They would pump the absolute minimum and then couldn’t maintain flow. Today, they’re much more sophisticated.” 

Canon describes the complexity of HDD drilling fluids in simple terms. 

“There is no universal soil, so therefore there is no universal fluid. There is no universal soil, so therefore, there is no universal reamer. And there is no universal soil, therefore there is no universal volume of fluid you need to use, because that depends on the hole size and what soil you’re in and how long the bore is,” he said. “You wind up having arrows going everywhere.” UC 

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