I Scud Run for a Living
Flying pipeline patrol seems easy enough—just fly level while looking out of the window. The reality is far more complicated and challenging.
About a year ago I began working for a company that does aerial survey (patrol) of pipelines. My job is to fly a Cessna 172 parallel to petroleum-carrying underground pipes while looking for what is euphemistically referred to as conflicts. Conflicts can be a wide variety of issues—leaks, damaged pipe above ground, equipment on top of or near the pipeline, fire (I haven’t seen that yet and the very idea of a burning pipe leak or a fire near a pipeline is enough to make the toughest person cringe) and anything else that looks abnormal or out of place—you get a feel for that sort of thing. As it turns out, equipment is the most common issue. It could be the client—the pipeline operator for whom we are flying—doing repairs on a section of pipe, a contractor doing work for the client, a road crew or a farmer working in a field or his back yard.
I took this job thinking it would be an easy way to slide back into professional aviation. I had been away from it for a few years. How hard could it be? I was going to be flying a Skyhawk in day, VFR conditions and I used to fly a Swearingen Metro—the San Antonio sewer pipe—single-pilot in hard IFR. This will be a piece of cake—I’ll get back to flying for a living without breaking a sweat.
Was I ever wrong. I learned about task saturation all over again, and in new ways I’d never experienced—especially when I fly in the Class B airspace of the Detroit area. The job involves flying a precise track over the ground regardless of wind and turbulence, at exacting—and low—altitudes, while watching for other aircraft, birds and obstructions—not all of the towers are charted, coordinate with my observer and position the airplane so he can clearly see and photograph conflicts and—in Class B, C and D airspace—negotiate with ATC to get the clearances I need to fly those precise ground tracks—it’s not like I can divert and still do my job. Suddenly, my old job of hand-flying a Metro at altitude for an hour or so between approaches seems like a paid vacation.
Training was, shall we say, informal. I rode in the backseat for two weeks, then had one day as an observer and it was left seat time.
The procedure is to fly less than a quarter of a mile—realistically the length of two to four football fields—to the right of the pipeline, at 700 to 1000 feet AGL. If I fly any higher it’s hard to identify objects on the ground accurately. Any lower and the ground looks mighty close and it’s difficult to focus on items of interest, plus if I have a problem with the plane, there is not much time or space to deal with it or make it to a decent forced landing spot. We have authorization to fly as low 200 feet AGL, but that is only in times of specific need—I’d better have a good reason.
The legs are long—the folks who set them up obviously wanted the most bang for their pilot and observer dollars. Some of them leave me with a fuel reserve of only four to six gallons. I learned right away to lean the mixture as soon as I get the engine stabilized at cruise power. The nonsense you’ve heard about not leaning below 3000 feet MSL is just that, nonsense. If I listened to that old wives’ tale my fuel margin would be way too slim for my liking. The engine likes the procedure as well—as of this writing it has 2600 hours since major and running just fine. I also learned to make sure the fuel tanks are completely full when I refuel. For some reason, some line personnel have a habit of not topping off the tanks when they are asked to top off the tanks.
Flying low means dealing with things people built for the purpose of reaching up into the air to snatch airplanes out of the sky—although they may have other functions. These include antennas, windmills, powerlines and—I haven’t had to worry about this, yet—tethered balloons. Those windmills you see increasingly across the landscape stick up about 500 feet. That means I can’t afford to let my attention get distracted and let my altitude slip a couple of hundred feet. On the routes I fly, I encounter more than 50 antennas that come within 200 feet of my altitude under normal conditions and at least 12 monsters that I look up at as I fly by. Two of those are within 100 feet of the pipeline. That means guy wires stabilizing the thing that stick out at least half as far as it is tall. They are virtually invisible unless the weather is perfect. Snagging one of those is every pilot’s nightmare. (Editor's note: For some plain talk about scudrunning, click here.)
Down low, birds are an issue. When they are flocking, they are easy to see, when they are alone, often the only time you see one is as it whizzes by within 100 feet and gets your adrenaline pumping. Early on, I learned about target fixation—the danger of focusing your attention on the pipeline or an object on the ground and allowing the airplane to get to an altitude or into an attitude from which recovery could be impossible.
Until now, I never thought of an airport as an obstacle. With airports come airplanes. I’ve had a couple of near misses; now I’m more aggressive about making sure I listen to CTAF in the vicinity of an airport.
When I first started the job, it could take two hours to do the seven segments within the Class B airspace around Detroit Metro Airport. One segment runs along the east side of the airport, another runs between the approach end of the four main parallel runways and an interstate highway. Flying them required significant negotiation with tower every time. Over a period of six months I made phone calls and visits on my own time to Detroit ATC and worked out a letter of agreement (LOA) with the tower that has made life easier for everyone concerned.
Adding to the challenge of operating down low in Class B airspace and all of the ATC coordination is that it's a metropolitan area, which means there’s a lot of stuff on the ground near the pipelines that has to be observed, evaluated and determined whether it's a conflict—as I’m talking with ATC and watching for towers and airplanes. That’s where pulling the power back and slowing the Skyhawk down can help with the workload.
To do the job, I need day, VFR conditions. The working minimum is three miles visibility and a 1000-foot ceiling. In reality, I rarely start a day with less than five miles and 1500-foot cloud bases because I’ve got to maintain cloud clearances in all of the types of airspace I fly through and low visibility means difficulty in clearly seeing objects in the area of the pipeline. There are days that I fly in four different states in the Great Lakes area. That makes weather a serious issue—and the Great Lakes has a reputation for lousy weather. I deal with localized fog, rain and snow showers. I either go around them, circle for a while or land and wait for the weather to improve. The weather can vary wildly in the course of a 400-mile leg; I’ve had a .40-inch change in the altimeter setting on one trip.
Turbulence is another issue. Sunny days means convective turbulence. For most pilots that means just climbing to find smooth air—something I can’t do. I get to stay low and take the pounding. During winter the winds tend to be stronger and gusty, generating mechanical turbulence down low. Frankly, dealing with turbulence for five to eight hours of flying in one day will wear you out. The best description I have is to ride a kiddie roller coaster all day with one 45-minute break. Oh, and it’s all hand flown, there’s no autopilot. There’s also no lunch break, except maybe, when you stop for fuel. I’ve learned to bring food I can eat inflight without spilling. Sitting in your food for several hours is not a lot of fun.
Because of the long hours of hand flying, I now wear a bicycling glove. It makes things easier in two ways: it makes the yoke feel a little larger which is easier on my hand and it absorbs sweat from so the yoke doesn’t get slippery. While that has helped with the discomfort in my hand, I’ve not solved the chronic problem of a sore neck that comes from my head moving around all the time looking at the panel, the tablet computers with data about the pipeline, objects on the ground and spotting other aircraft. I guess it’s just a part of the job.
When I spot a potential conflict, I maneuver so my observer can get a photograph and send a report. Normal turns to position the airplane to look at conflicts mean banks of 45 degrees or greater because we don’t have time to mess around getting the airplane to the spot where the observer can see what needs to be seen. Yes, we’re still at 700 feet AGL and will probably be doing a little slow flight once we’ve got the right perspective. This is true stick and rudder flying—often with skids and slips to get the strut out of the way for a picture. At the same time, I’m still looking out for other aircraft. Even with a rudimentary TCAS in the plane my head is on a swivel all the time trying to keep this all together. This has turned out to be some of the most challenging, and enjoyable, flying I’ve ever done.
Pipelines are transportation—of liquids rather than people—so they fall under the regulations established by the Department of Transportation. They require that the lines be inspected 26 times a year, no more than 21 days apart, and no less than four days apart. We plan on flying the lines every week, so that if something stops us from flying, we are likely to be able to make a flight over the section within the time prescribed by the rules. Nevertheless, sometimes weather or maintenance issues conspire against us and someone has to “walk”—it’s really drive—the line to assure it has been inspected within the required time.
The week before I wrote this, I had to make a special flight. A contractor laying drainage tile in a field didn’t bother to comply with the law requiring calling 811 before beginning a digging project. His crew hit a six-inch diameter blended gas line with a trencher. Fortunately, all they did was seriously dent and gouge the pipe, they didn’t break it. The pipeline was immediately shut down. Repairs took several days and involved digging a long, deep hole to replace the section of pipe. Then, once the repairs were completed, my observer and I had to fly over and inspect the entire line before the client could put product back in it.
My observer had been doing the job for two years before I started with the company. I’ve been impressed with his professionalism and willingness to be a passenger through some very unpleasant turbulence as well as the maneuvering needed as part of the job. As we were talking one day I discovered that my headset is older than he is yet even with our age difference, we work as a well-drilled team.
Peter Mulliner holds an ATP with type rating in the Swearingen Metro III, is a CFII and has more than 9400 hours of flying time.