Aerial Adventure! Smokestack Lightning

Some true flying adventure!

I began flying pipeline patrol largely to escape my then-current job as a flight instructor. I’d been an instructing for a little over a year and I’d already become aviation’s version of Tin Cup – jaded and burnt out. I knew my students weren’t getting the best for their money and it was time to move on. My motivations for instructing surely weren’t altruistic either. Like everyone else, I was racking up hours to move on to planes with less duct tape and more air conditioning.

I’d heard all of the warnings and rumors about flying pipeline – it was dangerous (heh), the planes were junk, and the pay sucked, but hell, the same was true for my current job. If I was going to die in an airplane, I’d rather it not had been at the hands of some entitled kid, looking to pencil-whip 300 flight hours so he could go back to India and get stuffed into the cockpit of an Airbus with 200 souls on board.

Once hired, I did a quick week of ride-alongs, then they chucked me the keys. My plane was a 1982 Cessna Skylane RG. It was what you’re thinking of, single propeller, gas engine, high wings. The RG stood for “retractable gear,” which it had – and it was fast. She’d do 153 knots true air speed when trimmed up and leaned out and that was where she stayed. I’ve never seen another Skylane that fast.

Federal regulations dictated that civil aircraft were not allowed to fly below 800 feet above ground, however, I was told we had a waiver that let us go down to 500 feet. I never saw said waiver, but I was assured it existed. Regardless, most patrols were flown between 200 and 400 feet of altitude. This is a particularly dangerous way to fly. You see, at 1000 feet above ground (which is still considered quite low by most standards), if one were to lose the engine, they would have approximately two minutes to find somewhere to land before running out of sky. At 200 feet, you’ve got about 24.09 seconds, give or take. Not to mention that during your search for this pristine, flat, dry, cow-free landing zone, you’re configuring the aircraft for a maximum-glide configuration, pumping the landing gear down, and trying not to stall – you get the idea.

Before I go further into the various ways I’ve nearly died partaking in this endeavor, I should tell you what pipeline patrol is, and why it exists. The Texas Railroad Commission is the state agency which regulates petrochemical pipeline right-of-ways. Depending on the product and volume of the pipeline, these right-of-ways need to be inspected on a regular basis, some daily, some weekly, others longer. In Texas alone there are some 58,600 miles of underground pipeline, much of which runs through dense forest, coastal sloughs, bays, and dense residential areas. The most effective way to inspect these pipelines is via aircraft. No high-tech gadgets here, my job was done flying low and fast, using my eyes to scan the ground, and fly the plane, while looking for potential threats to the pipeline such as excavators, drillers, bulldozers, or farmers building fence. When I saw something that concerned me, I’d jam my flip phone in between my headset earpiece and call the company man on the ground, where they’d dispatch a crew to go investigate. Pipeline explosions are not an uncommon thing, and have killed people and cost millions to repair and clean up.

You can see how this job would lend itself to some interesting experiences. I’d take off at dawn with the amber Galveston sun rising over the bay, weaving my way through the acrid smokestacks and refineries of southeast Houston, headed for the coast. From there I’d fly four hours straight until I was nearly out of fuel. I’d land at Houston Executive Airport, which is not in Houston. I’d top off, and do my best to flirt with the receptionist while scarfing down a sandwich and tater chips, then set out for Louisiana. Normally I’d land with seven hours and 56 minutes on the flight timer, just shy of the legal eight-hour limit. I’d pull up to the hangar as the sun dipped below the horizon, a few urine-filled Gatorade bottles rolling around the back seat, shut her down, and get ready to do the same thing tomorrow. Most of the time it was mind-numblingly boring – except when it wasn’t.

There were many times I thought I was going to die in that plane. A ridiculous amount now that I think about it. However, each time I didn’t die, the elation of following my escape seemed to eclipse the fear, resulting in a zero-sum and another day of flying.

There were many, almost daily, smaller near-death experiences such as close calls with crop dusters and other pipeliners, near-misses with towers and smokestacks, and occasional engine cough over the Atchafalaya swamp. However, the first truly pants-filling experience I can remember is probably the most ridiculous. One particularly hot and boring day I was flying over the hazy coastal prairie of southeast Texas when I heard a “tink” up and to the left, near where the cockpit air vent was. I thought little of it and faced forward. In my periphery noticed movement on my crotch. I looked down to see a stunned but waking, thumb-sized hornet. I’m not proud of the sound I likely made as it regained its bearings and began twitching its antennae. I sat there motionless. What was supposed to do, swat it? NO. God that’ll just piss it off. Oh shit I have to turn here. I jerked the plane’s nose up and banked hard to the right while the G’s pushed me into the seat. Straying from the right-of-way meant I was in uncharted waters with towers and guy wires ready to slice the plane if half. I leveled out and looked down – the hornet was gone. This was not good. The windows weren’t open and I knew I wasn’t alone. Fly the plane!

I whipped my head around violently searching for the devil bug while trying to maintain control of the aircraft. Something was blowing softly on my neck from the right and my stomach dropped. I looked over to see an extremely pissed off and confused hornet inches from my face. I began flailing violently at it while trying to open the window. In the chaos, I had a moment of clarity where I realized the ridiculousness of my situation. I had to laugh. During my hundreds of hours of training I had been taught how to handle almost any emergency imaginable – engine fires, stuck landing gear, oil pressure loss – there was no protocol for psychotic fucking hornets! This was how I was going to die – my family and colleagues none the wiser. They’d scrape my remains from a smoldering heap on the Texas prairie, and read eulogies of what a great guy I was, and I died doing what I loved, etc. The FAA would do an investigation and conclude it was pilot error that caused the crash. Surely the hornet would survive the impact and fly out of the twisted wreckage. The utter stupidity of it made me chuckle between my feminine shrieking. Suddenly, the window latch I’d been fumbling with gave and the window exploded open, sucking the spawn of Satan past my nose and out of the aircraft. Afterward, I remember an odd feeling of gratitude mixed with embarrassment. That was not to be my last terrifying in-flight experience.

Boredom can be just as dangerous as a rabid hell-wasp. Hour after hour, day after day, I’d drill holes in thick Gulf Coast air, searching for AM radio stations on the Automatic Direction Finder. I had to keep my mind occupied or risk falling asleep – which meant death. One particularly boring day I was flying over an equally boring patch of southeastern Louisiana. It had been a dry summer, and the ground was dusty and dry. The moist southern tropical gulf breeze blew in from the coast and kicked up the dirt over barren sugar cane fields, occasionally creating a dust devil. I’d see them in the distance like brown beanstalks twisting upwards to the low-hanging cumulus clouds. I paid them no mind as they were far from a threat to me. Then I saw ahead, about a mile south of my right-of-way, a fat, healthy dust devil reaching up from the ground and an incredibly stupid thought entered my head. What would happen if I flew through it? Would I kill it? Would the thermal updraft flip the plane over or stall my wings, sending me into a deadly spin at low altitude? Or maybe the engine would ingest the sand and dirt and choke? What a stupid idea. To even consider it was idiocy.

But.

I’d never heard of anyone doing it, and who knows if I’d ever have the chance to find out? This might be a once and a lifetime opportunity to kill myself! I had to do it. I banked my ship left and headed for the devil, scanning the trees for towers or powerlines. I was clear. This was destiny.

I mashed the throttle into the dash and flattened my propeller to increase my speed. As it grew larger in my windshield it dawned on me this might be the last seconds of my life. As I punched into the vortex, I felt a sharp jolt upward like hitting a speed bump at oh, I don’t know, 153 knots. I reflexively shoved the yoke down to keep from climbing. At that moment the horizon came back into view and the air cleared. I was through. I yanked the plane upward and left turning just in time to see the pillar of sand dissolve. I had slayed the beast. I returned to my pipeline and monotony. It’s funny because I didn’t die, but it was stupid.

Weather was an ever-present menace on patrol. Lacking the sophisticated radar and GPS systems commonly found today, I relied on radio weather broadcasts from nearby stations, and common sense to try and dodge squalls and supercells. Not flying due to weather was not an option unless it was socked in fog, or 200 foot ceilings. During midsummer on the gulf coast you can bet on dodging small, but powerful convection thunderstorm that pop up with little warning and dump buckets of rain, shoot lightning and spit twisters. I can say with certainty the only tornado I’ve seen with my own eyes was less than a mile outside of my left window as I was flying between Beaumont and Houston.

I lost a few years off my life once while was while flying below a shelving layer of clouds. This is where the base of the clouds slowly slopes down, forcing the pilot to fly lower to avoid them. Once the pilot realizes they are dangerously low to the ground, they have to leave the safety of the pipeline to attempt a 180-degree turn, usually only to find the ceiling has dropped behind them as well. If equipped for flight into the clouds, the pilot can call air traffic control and get a quick clearance, and fly into the clouds. If they are not trained for this type of flight, they continue lower until they’re buzzing rooftops and tree lines. I was trained for in-cloud flight, and the plane was technically rated for it as well, but I knew the company’s shoestring maintenance budget meant that flawless instrument operation was unlikely. I couldn’t chance it. I’d seen the attitude indicator – the instrument which shows level flight – tumble before. A hole opened up in the clouds above me. These are often called trap holes, and you can probably guess why. I punched through the hole in to an open void. An orb of clear air surrounded me for approximately a mile, but offered no way out. I had to go back down.

Many pilots know the feeling I then had. While I didn’t experience panic, I felt smalls beads of sweat form on my neck and my hands turned clammy. It was the creeping dread of slowly realizing you have made a series of small, terrible mistakes. With every decision I’d made, things slowly got worse until I realized I just might be fucked. With this growing unease in my gut and a metallic taste in my mouth, I chopped the power and spiraled down through the much smaller hole. It had to be bigger that that the first time! Wasn’t it? It had to be. I dropped through the pinhole in time to nose the plane level about 100 feet above the ground. The landscape had turned evil while I was gone. The green sun-speckled prairie that I’d left was now a solemn portrait of Mordor. Scrubby oaks and palms were clawing at me. This was bad. I pointed my ship to the nearest thing calling itself an airport. I crossed the runway threshold with my wheels blowing leaves off the treetops. My hand was trembling as I cut the throttle and pulled up to the mobile trailer that served as the lobby/office. Fat rain drops began to slowly cover the windscreen and I knew I’d dodged another. I’ve always been underwhelmed with the anti-climactic denouement the first few minutes after escaping death brings. Usually you just sit there for a minute, then get up and continue your life.

I eventually left pipeline patrol after a series of other close calls, including crashing my beloved Skylane when the nose wheel collapsed upon landing.

The final straw was a dispute with management over the airworthiness of my plane. It was leaking fuel badly from the engine and I refused to fly it until it was repaired. They called in another pilot who said it was fine and flew the patrol. My wife had recently had a child and all the thrills in the world weren’t worth the embarrassing pay I was receiving. It was still a good experience and a good time. I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of – good things, stupid things, and everything in between. Soon I suppose the job will be performed by drones, and that’s probably a good thing. I’m glad I got to survive one of the old pilot professions where there were no participation trophies, and the margin for error is breathtakingly thin.

Travis Martin is an outdoor writer and editor from Texas. His work has appeared in a variety hunting and fishing publications and websites. When he can afford it, he can usually be found in the field, forest, or surf. He can be reached at beechkingair@gmail.com or the Devil’s Backbone Tavern.


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