The story of an elephant spotted in the middle of a pipeline right-of-way (ROW) has become a bit of a legend for TransCanada pilots flying out of the Conroe airport just north of Houston. A few years ago while on patrol, pilots noticed that a circus set up in a small Kansas town had tethered an elephant to a three-foot stake they’d driven into grassy ground directly above the pipeline. Fortunately, the pipeline was not hit.
While not everything the pilots see on their regular ROW inspections is quite so exotic, the elephant story does illustrate how easily ROW infringements can occur. Third-party damage to pipelines is the leading cause of pipeline incidents, which is one reason why ROW inspection is a regulated requirement in North America.
“We go quite a bit beyond what’s required because we want to lead the pack on meeting regulations,” says TransCanada chief pilot Kurt Neuenschwander, Conroe office patrol.
“We follow standard aircraft operating procedures to ensure each pilot essentially flies in the same manner and we use checklists to ensure nothing is missed as we move from one flight phase to another.”
— Kurt Neuenschwander, TransCanada chief pilot, Conroe office patrol
And for Neuenschwander — who flew for more than 20 years into dangerous hot spots on humanitarian missions for aid organizations such as Care, Save the Children and World Vision, as well as for the United Nations — flying in sensitive situations is nothing new.
Today, he’s one of eight pilots in the Conroe office who patrol almost all of TransCanada’s pipelines in the U.S., covering about 14,000 miles (22,500 kilometres) in a typical month at an altitude of about 500 feet. In Canada similar patrols are performed by TransCanada helicopter pilots from Toronto that also look after the northeastern U.S. and by contract pilots in the Alberta area. As well as patrolling the ROWs, Conroe pilots also fly passengers regionally out of Houston and the Midwest to facilitate TransCanada’s business.
Looking for anomalies that may spell danger
“We’re basically the eyes and ears of the company when we go out there. I look at it as we’re taking a picture for the guys on the ground,” says pilot Ken Axmaker, who has been on patrol with TransCanada for about four years. “We’re mostly looking for any types of incursions on the ROW or leaks.”
Fortunately, leaks are very rare occurrences, but knowing what to look for is important for all of these pilots.
“Mainly we’re patroling for anything that’s going to harm the pipe or the system. The majority of what we pick up is construction or people just forgetting there’s a pipe under the ground,” says Axmaker. “We send an email and use our sat phones to call things in and once it goes to Gas or Oil Control, they contact someone to go out there immediately to check it out and make sure.”
Often, when pilots see equipment being used near the pipe, the equipment operator has already notified TransCanada.
“I think most of the time the techs in the area know about what we report because of One Call, but now and then we find someone who hasn’t reported what they are doing or we find erosion that has exposed the pipe or some other hazard.”
— Kurt Neuenschwander, TransCanada chief pilot, Conroe office patrol
In 2013, Conroe pilots reported about 2,300 observations. If they see something during the patrol that may cause imminent danger to the pipeline they call it in to TransCanada’s Oil or Gas Control immediately so that technicians on the ground can respond. If there isn’t imminent danger the pilots include the observation in their report to the Area Managers and Pipe Integrity after patrol of the region is complete.
The report also provides a snapshot of any new structures or developments to help GDI Geospatial Data Integrity and Pipe Integrity track population growth and determine the classification of the pipe, which determines the frequency of the required patrols.
Safety procedures and safe aircraft
While they inspect the pipe ROWs to ensure public safety, the pilots also follow meticulous procedures to ensure their own safety flying at low altitudes.
“Our operations manuals guide our patrol preparations and performance,” says Neuenschwander. “They outline everything from how many hours we can fly in a day to how to complete the required paperwork. We’ve built in an extra margin of safety to provide for any unusual circumstances we might encounter.
TransCanada also goes above and beyond in ensuring that these patrols are carried out in the safest way possible. This includes using excellent equipment and using two pilots instead of a single pilot which is the industry standard.
“When you’re down that low at those altitudes you want a really reliable engine and that’s what we run,” says Axmaker. “We also use two pilots instead of one. There are a lot of areas we get into with heavy traffic in the airspace and it would be a real handful trying to fly with just one guy doing everything. You would definitely miss observations.”
“We also patrol more than the federal requirements. For example on some of our gas ROWs we run monthly patrols, but the requirement from the government is just for quarterly inspections. So we do 12 inspections a year instead of four.”
— Ken Axmaker, ROW patrol pilot, TransCanada
The aircraft TransCanada uses for patrols — the Cessna Caravan (C-208) — has one of the industry’s best records for engine reliability and has leading technology that helps navigate in low airspace and reduce the risk of collision.
“There’s even a voice that tells us when other aircraft, terrain or towers are getting too close,” says Neuenschwander. The aircraft are meticulously maintained by Conroe’s three mechanics.
Pilots attend refresher courses every year, flying with an instructor for up to six hours in a full-motion simulator that provides flight practice in realistic emergency scenarios where systems might fail. Other training keeps pilots current on instrumentation and aerial patrol observation.
After 20 years of flying into dangerous hot spots on humanitarian missions, flying ROWs has been quite a change for Neuenschwander, who took on this role about a year ago. But that doesn’t prevent him from enjoying patroling the many miles of ROWs he surveys for TransCanada.
“Flying over the pipe and getting to know it gives me a real sense of ownership of the pipeline and wanting to protect both our assets and the people that live around them,” says Neuenschwander. “It’s not always easy to determine what someone is intending to do when we’re flying over, but the key for us is that if there’s any question in our minds, we notify our technicians on the ground.”
TransCanada’s ROW inspection program is one aspect of a very comprehensive pipeline integrity management program. Operating safely is part of our 60-year track record of responsibly and reliably transporting the energy North America needs.
Whether you’re building on a jobsite or in your backyard, before you dig, know what’s below, Call Before You Dig, it’s free of charge to have your underground utilities located and marked. To report a pipeline incident or leak on one of TransCanada’s pipelines in Canada, the United States or Mexico, call TransCanada’s Emergency Response team.