How this pilot is helping prevent pipeline leaks from the air

This is the third post in our “The human side of environmental protection” blog series.

Tom Urie is a familiar sight in the skies of northern Alberta. He’s an aerial surveillance pilot for Envirotech Aviation Inc., a CEPA Foundation member company specializing in pipeline aerial inspection and photography, based in Nisku, AB.

aerial pipeline surveillance

While technologies such as in-line inspection devices, hyperspectral imaging and SCADA systems are great for detecting tiny leaks up close, it’s pilots like Tom who help pipeline operators keep an eye on the big picture. They fly the pipeline rights of way (ROWs), with a ‘spotter’ on board, checking for anything out of the ordinary.  That might include signs of damage, but more typically they find hazards such as unauthorized construction, or the use of heavy machinery that might cause damage if it isn’t stopped.

Aerial surveillance pilots fly at heights of just 183 metres, using pipeline mapping data, cameras and video equipment to monitor the ROWs. If they spot anything they phone it in immediately so that employees of the pipeline company can respond before any damage is done.

Tom is a highly experienced commercial and training pilot, and he’s been conducting aerial inspections since 1979. We had a chance to chat with him about his work, and here’s what he had to say:

Q: Why did you decide to become a pilot?

Tom: I always wanted to be a pilot, even as a kid. I lived very close to the airport, and every day after school I would go to the airport to watch aircraft take off and land. Aerial surveillance is great, because it’s something different every day – when you’re doing corporate flying, it’s all autopilot. I love the low level flying because it’s more exciting.

Q: Why do you think aerial surveillance is important?

Tom: From the air we’re able to see things that could cause a problem, so we can prevent them before they happen. If we see construction and heavy machinery crossing the pipeline right of way we take pictures and phone it in, and then someone checks immediately whether that activity has been approved.

I’m happy that I can play my part in supporting pipelines companies to protect the environment and keep the land the way it’s supposed to be.

Q: Who decides whether the pipeline route should be monitored from the air?

Tom: All pipelines must be surveyed from the air, but the frequency varies, depending on the size of the pipe and the contents. It’s all regulated. Some pipelines are flown at least once a day, 365 days a year. Another one might be flown only every few months.

Q: Do you fly alone?

Tom: Each plane always has a pilot and a spotter. Because I’m a senior pilot I fly, and it’s usually a junior pilot who is the spotter. After about six months of that, they can start flying under supervision.

Q: What kinds of things have you discovered when flying the pipeline rights of way?

Tom: Once I saw a guy in an excavator driving back and forth across the pipeline. He was driving right by (but not on) a berm that had been built specifically to be driven on. When he saw our plane, he drove his equipment to a corner, jumped into his pick-up and drove away, but the name of his company and his phone number were printed right on the door of the truck so we were able to report him anyway!

Tom is so passionate about flying that even a short spell in retirement couldn’t ground him. He found he had too much time on his hands and was easily persuaded to come back to work about a year ago. Nowadays he can be seen flying the lines in northern Alberta in a bright orange plane; and when he’s not in the air you’ll probably find him golfing or trading stocks.

You can read more about the people who are involved in pipeline environmental protection in these other posts:

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 117,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2014, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.