Flying above the Bakken business crowd

By Luke Geiver | March 28, 2013

Tanner Overland is probably in the air right now, soaring over a well site near Williston, N.D., or a pipeline string in the southern Badlands. He’s an aerial photographer, an aerial pipeline patroller, a jet center partner, and above all, a case study in what skill, an entrepreneurial spirit and opportunity look like in the Bakken. He gets paid to document new building construction or well-site status, and he does it 150-feet in the air traveling at 110 miles per hour.

When he first started Overland Aerial Photography in 2010, he was living in a Grand Forks, N.D., apartment and working in Williston. “I would get a call from a client and drive all the way back (to Williston). I would rent a plane and a pilot to go up with me.” His clients are real estate firms from Denver building hotels in places such as Williston or Dickinson that need imagery for investors, or oil production companies in Houston requesting visual proof of drilling progress at a well-site near Tioga.

Starting this spring, his client list will expand to include pipeline owners needing patrolling services and business owners or prospective investors arriving at his Williston Jet Center, slated to open this summer.Last year, he spent 2,000 hours above the North Dakota landscape. “I got the opportunity to watch it evolve into the oil-producing powerhouse that it is,” he says, “and I’ve captured most of it on my camera.”

There is one image Overland remembers specifically that he says helps to tell the emergence of the region. “I can remember the mobile home parks northwest of Williston. They were completely barren. It was a desolate area of concrete streets that kids would go in and use for skateboarding,” he says. After he moved back in 2009, that scene was different. “I remember the first time up over it. The park was full again, and there were hundreds and hundreds of mobile homes there.”

Through his experience working in the Bakken, Overland has learned the best route to a successful business. “I look at things to increase efficiency,” he says. To do that, and stand out from other pipeline patrol services, he’s upgraded his photo and report capabilities. The North Dakota Department of Transportation mandates all pipelines to be monitored for corrosion, rust, intruders or in some cases, an unknown home builder or fence post digger working above a pipeline string. Overland’s job is to photograph any instances and provide a report, or call the appropriate company. And, when he does, he does it in real time.

While most patrolling services provide paper reports with the longitude and latitude of an incident, Overland sends a GPS’ed image via a link created on his iPad moments after he snaps a shot. “I can send a message to a pipeline company, and say this just happened here,” he explains. And he says, in addition to an aerial photo that is sourced with a GPS coordinate, “you click on a link and it pulls you to Google Earth and it pinpoints the location.” The link recipient can then forward the message on to patrol personnel who can then drive, ATV or snowmobile to the exact spot to speak with anyone near the area and let them know where the pipeline is.

Real-time pipeline patrolling isn’t the only service Overland has tried to improve. Using his relationships formed during aviation training at the University of North Dakota, he has partnered with the Fargo Jet Center, one of the best general aviation facilities in the nation, according to Overland, to open the Williston Jet Center. The facility, opening this summer, will give prospective or current business owners easy access to the region. The center will provide fueling, maintenance and other general services, Overland says, all in the same way the Fargo facility does. There are roughly 5,000 general aviation facilities in the U.S. (and 500 commercial sites), and Overland says, the Fargo Jet Center is rated in the top 10.

When the jet center opens, Overland will continue his photography services in addition to day-to-day operations at the center. Although he advocates any entrepreneur new to the region to remain determined, he also highlights the workforce issue. “Any store you open, any service industry you are in, more than likely will succeed, but the big thing is employees. You have to treat your employees the way you would treat yourself.”

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Photos by Overland Aerial Photography