Dan Sayewich is the envy of many who have a desk job.
On any given day, he wakes up in the morning and goes to work on one of the helicopters patrolling TransCanada’s extensive pipeline network in southern Ontario, Quebec, portions of the Maritimes and the Northeast U.S.
“I’ve been doing this job for 15 years and it doesn’t get old,” says Dan, TransCanada’s chief helicopter pilot. “We are basically the eyes and ears of the company, looking for anything happening on the pipeline’s right of way that could damage the infrastructure.”
Hard to miss an elephant on the right of way
The story of an elephant spotted in the middle of a pipeline right of way has become a bit of a legend among TransCanada’s 20 helicopter and airplane pilots.
A few years ago, a TransCanada pilot flying out of the Conroe airport, just north of Houston, spotted that a circus set up in a small Kansas town had tethered an elephant to a three-foot stake that they had driven into grassy ground directly above the pipeline. Fortunately, the pipeline was not hit.
TransCanada’s air fleet patrols 700,000 km of pipelines each year.
Not every air patrol carried out by TransCanada pilots is anywhere as exotic. Dan’s job mainly consists in looking for unauthorized work or heavy machinery used on the right of way, fallen trees, signs of erosion and anything else that could harm the pipe.
“We fly at an altitude of 300 to 500 feet (91 to 152 metres) and this gives us a bird’s eye view of the pipeline system. Anything abnormal we see, we’ll report it to our teams on the ground and they will send specialists on site to make the necessary checks.”
Aircraft-mounted lasers aid high-tech leak detection system
Complementing TransCanada’s aerial scrutiny is a cutting-edge laser device strapped on TransCanada’s helicopters and airplanes, which is able to spot a natural gas leak from the air, even before it is visible to the human eye.
“Our equipment is so accurate it can spot the methane generated in a landfill,” says pilot Sébastien Filion, who works with Dan out of Toronto. “The authorities consider a carbon monoxide reading of 10 parts per million (ppm) as an emergency threshold. Our equipment allows us to get a reading at 3 ppm, all this from 300 feet high.”
TransCanada’s dedicated air fleet is also playing a critical role in the development of projects such as Energy East, the 4,600-kilometre pipeline that will bring Western Canadian oil to Quebec and New Brunswick.
Helping engineers survey routes and environmental specialists carry out comprehensive studies
Dan and Sébastien have clocked many hours for the project over the past three years. They fly engineers and environmental specialists who need to identify the best pipeline route and carry out comprehensive surveys on wildlife, soils, vegetation, geology and terrain to better understand and minimize the project’s impact on the environment.
Developing a transcontinental pipeline involves a lot of people, and this includes helicopter pilots and their mechanics. These groups, each with their own skill set, work to ensure Energy East and other TransCanada pipelines operate safely without disrupting the environment.
“What makes me very proud is that through the job we do, we ensure that the population gets its energy safely,” Sébastien said.