Old Mack’s Tales

September 15, 2013

Flying Work: Pipeline Aerial Patrolling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 12:04 am
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Flying to OK City for a chat with the FAA.


I landed the Cessna 172 patrol plane in Springfield, MO, to pay my sister a brief visit. I called her from the phone at the car rental desk. Sis gave me directions to her place. But the clerk refused to rent a car to me, because I had no personal credit cards and they wouldn’t accept cash. Sis recently managed a regional office for Hertz, so she wasn’t surprised when I called her back. By the time she got to the airport, I had serviced the plane. She talked about her recent divorce as we walked from the terminal out to the plane. Everything she said was news to me; we hadn’t been in touch for two years. The most interesting tidbit was that she was sharing a mobile home with an old girlfriend from their high school days.

“How did you know I was here?” She asked.

“I used to trace skips, remember? Mom gave me your unlisted number. I had to check the area code. She didn’t know you were in Springfield. She thought you were still in Atlanta. Why the secrecy?”

“I got tired of my ex calling me in the middle of the night. You know me. I always fall for the crazy ones. Jerks who don’t know when it’s over and keep hanging around. Tell me about your wife. Mom said she was very young.”

“I don’t have time. Give me your address and I’ll write.” We exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and promised to keep in touch.

We stood on the concrete apron looking at the Cessna 172 with its downward curving “Ace Deemer” wingtips. She scowled at me and asked: “Do they really work?”

“Just a bit. Most pilots wouldn’t notice, unless they were trying to land on a dike in the swamps south of New Orleans, Sis.”

Sis had a lot of stick time in a former boyfriend’s Boeing Stearman. I knew she could have landed it on that dike, but being unable to fishtail that old tail dragger to see over the engine cowling, she would have made mincemeat of those cattle crossing that dike. I didn’t mention that; she would have kept me there all afternoon arguing. I had no time for that; I had to get to Tulsa before dark.

You have an address for us now, Sis. So write once in a while, okay?”

“Sure,” she said skeptically. “If you’re still in Hammond when Christmas rolls around, I’ll send a card with pictures of my kids. But I know you, Brother.”

Sis waived as I taxied past the terminal towards the duty runway. I gave her a thumbs up and pushed in the throttle.

The Explorer’s right of way lies between thick pine forests of the Ozarks. The low angle of the sun ahead causes the needles of the trees to shimmer; it’s hard on the eyes. The line crosses hills and valleys monotonously. The wide, cleared strip below was mainly red clay with a scattering of pine seedlings along its edges. Flying above it at 100 feet, following the terrain, I could see the ruts made by the Jeeps and trucks of service crews. I didn’t envy them their job, even though I knew their salaries made mine look puny.

Passing over the mile markers I check marked them on my strip map and made symbols in places where erosion had uncovered stretches of the pipeline. Thus far only one major incident had been noted.

Back up the line I’d discovered a hillbilly on a backhoe digging a hole to bury his dead horse. I bombed him with a sandbag containing a message he couldn’t read—it told him he was about to break the pipe and create a gusher of gasoline. He hadn’t looked up, but he had stopped digging. I dropped the same message to his wife, who was hanging laundry on her clothesline; she read it and ran to stop her husband in the nick of time. The light bulb on the Joplin rectifier was out; I reported it by radio to their line crew.

I was approaching the city of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. There the pipeline runs right through the heart of town. When I got there a crew from the sewer department was digging a hole in the street directly over the pipeline. I circled overhead, dropped my baggy with the warning, saw a worker pick it up and dart over to the backhoe operator waiving the crimson streamer attached to the sandbag. I made one more circuit over the main drag at an elevation of 300 feet, saw the operator reading the message and then took up a heading for Tulsa.

I landed in Tulsa to refuel before heading to Texas. The tower operator radioed me that the Federal Aviation Agency had requested the pleasure of my company in their offices on the Oklahoma City airport. “ASAP” said the guy on the radio, “You’ve been cited for a violation by a cop in Broken Arrow.” Delivering bad news must have made the guy’s day, for he was laughing when I Wilco’d his message.

I landed in OK City too late. The FAA offices were closed. I was down to a few bucks and change by then. I was buying gas for the plane on the boss’ Shell credit card. I couldn’t afford a motel room, so I shoved the seat as far aft as it would go, used my leather flight jacket for a pillow and slept soundly until 0900 the next morning.

It took a while to update my flight logbook and slip it into the plastic bag with the aircraft and engine logs, and our pipeline patrol waiver. It took the official less time to check my paperwork and deep six the cop’s citation. Meanwhile I helped myself to two cups of FAA coffee, drank one and put a lid on the other to take with me.

After taking off, I calculated the amount of time and gas I’d waste by flying south on route 81 the 74 miles to my birthplace of Marlow. I climbed to 3400 feet in clear, cool air and headed south west.

The aerial view of Marlow was a major disappointment. Trees had grown up and their foliage hid most of the buildings. I could make out the intersection of Main and Broadway, and see the railroad tracks running north and south between First Street and Railroad Avenue. But I could see neither Papa Calhoun’s little house nor the building in which Sis had been born. Grandpa Frank Jennings’ old place had been subdivided. I circled the town once and headed for Tulsa feeling like I’d just dropped a paycheck on a craps table.

I picked up my line out of the refinery in Tulsa and turned south. It was getting too dark to see the pipeline by the time I reached Bonham,Texas. I landed, parked the plane and tied it down to the pad-eyes on the apron. My gut was growling and kicking up acid. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I felt pretty glum as I walked to the unoccupied shack normally manned by the FBO. On the outer wall of the shack there was a bulletin board on which businessmen had thumb tacked their business cards. One card had been placed there by an AOPA member who was also the banker in that town. I pulled his card off the board, walked to the pay phone and called him at his home number.

Carl answered the phone. I asked if there was anyplace in town to cash on an out of state check. After telling him my situation and who I worked for, Carl said: “Stay right there. I’ll drive out and pick you up.”

Less than ten minutes later Carl drove up in his new Sedan De Ville. “It’s Thanksgiving day, Mack. How’d you like to have supper with me and my family?” That was the easiest decision I’d made in months. I got in his car and hoped my scroungy flight suit didn’t mess up the tan leather seats.

While Carl’s wife and daughter set the table, I used their phone to call the boss in Dickson City, Texas to tell him I wouldn’t arrive until the following evening. Then I called Chris and told her where I was and apologized for not making it home for Thanksgiving. She was more than a bit miffed. To rub it in, she mentioned that she’d scored a lid of grass and was going to party with our next door neighbors—college kids. “I’ll expect you when I see you,” she said, slamming the phone in its cradle.

Carl’s wife laid out a spread fit for a king. Spiral sliced ham glazed with pineapple and pricked with cloves graced a platter in front of Carl at the head of the table. Their 30 year old daughter Amy carried in the roasted turkey. Although there were only six at their table, the bounty could have fed twenty. In his prayer of thanks, Carl prayed for a safe flight for me.

After supper Carl and I went into his library with our cognac in snifter glasses. We smoked cigars while he took fifty dollars cash out of a desk drawer and exchanged it for my check.

The next morning Carl’s sixteen year old son, Robert, drove me to the airport while his parents were sleeping in. Robert unlocked the flying club’s gas pumps and topped off my tanks. He refused to take my credit card, saying: “That doohickey for credit cards is locked up in the shack.” When he was finished filling my tanks, Robert led me to a T-hangar to show me the family’s new Beechcraft Baron twin.

“I got my Private Pilot’s Certificate last month. Dad’s going to check me out in this beauty next week. When I graduate from high school I’m going down to Florida to the Embry Riddle flight school and get my Airline Transport Pilot’s rating.” I don’t believe I’ve met another young man as proud of his accomplishments or his goals. He reminded me of Milton Ruberg’s son, the one who died of bone cancer a few years back. I wished him luck and shook his hand.

My dad will probably tear up that check you gave him,” Robert said. “We all enjoyed your company. Stop by and say hello when you come this way again.”

Stevens had my paycheck ready for me when I landed in his soggy grass field south of Houston. I moved my gear from the plane I’d been flying for a month and left in a C-172 which had a fresh major overhaul.

Christine put on a show of mock anger when she picked me up at the Hammond, Louisiana airport. After dropping me off at our apartment, charging me to watch the baby, she went on a shopping spree. She returned loaded with goodies and was feeling high and forgiving. “You missed a great party,” she said. I didn’t say a word about Bonham.

~ end~


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