On Pipelines and Strip Mines

Two interesting charters.

One of the best things about flying in a helicopter is that it offers perfect, unobstructed views of things on the ground. That makes it a perfect platform for an otherwise difficult task: pipeline survey.

Arizona (and other states, I assume) is crisscrossed with buried pipelines. Water, petroleum, natural gas. You can see these pipelines on the ground by the signs posted at regular intervals along their length. You can see them from the air by the “scars” their construction has left on the earth.

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of doing my first pipeline survey job. My client and two companions hired me to pick them up in Tucson and fly them along their pipeline to a point just past Benson, AZ — perhaps 30 miles away by air. The pipeline followed I-10 for a while, then followed the course of a railroad track. The client is preparing to do some work on the line that’ll require digging and drilling. I didn’t ask for details — it’s none of my business — but they were primarily concerned with access for their equipment, especially in two or three riparian areas along the pipeline’s route.

The pipeline has obviously been in place for along while. I could tell by the condition of the earth’s surface above it. There was a scar, but in some places, it was difficult — if not downright impossible — to see. There was lots of vegetation growing over it in some places. In others, where it crossed deep washes, my passengers voiced some surprise that it had not been exposed. It had obviously been placed deep in the ground where the earth protected it.

The flight consisted of flying along the length of the pipeline, then circling (to the left) around each place where it was crossed by a major wash or river. There were quite a few of these places. My client had placed a GPS with its tracking feature enabled on the floor in the front of the helicopter so it could trace our route on a map. He’s likely to have a curved line with lots of loops on it. The loops are good — they’ll clearly indicate where we investigated potential problem areas for the project. One of the areas was so troublesome that we spent nearly 20 minutes circling it. I still have a clear picture of the wash, access roads, railroad, and nearby ranch in my mind. My client, of course, has photos. He took 90 pictures on our 1.6 hour flight.

The flight was interesting to me because it took me over terrain I hadn’t flown over before. The only other flight I’d done in the Tucson area was my “Border Patrol” flight with a photojournalist back in July. That flight had taken me from Nogales to Tucson on the west side of I-19, with thunderstorms to the east as we closed in on Tucson. This time, I was southeast of Tucson, over the rising desert terrain that leads to Benson and the San Pedro River. Not much to report, although there were some interesting land formations east of the river where the pipeline began its climb into the higher terrain of southeastern Arizona.

The flight ended with 4.2 hours of billable time, which certainly is welcome the same month I pay my annual helicopter insurance bill.

A more common job for me is sightseeing. On Wednesday, I did a custom sightseeing job out of Falcon Field in Mesa, AZ, for three men who wanted to explore the canyons and mines southeast of the Phoenix area. We started with a flight up the Salt River, keeping a respectable altitude to avoid the wilderness area below us. That took us over or near the four Salt River Lakes: Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt. The first two lakes were full of water, while the second two were below capacity. There were some boats on the water, but not many that midweek day.

From Roosevelt lake, we flew east, high over the Salt River’s winding course, then headed south toward some smoke to check out what turned out to be a controlled burn. We hooked up with US 60 to the east of Globe and followed it west. That took us over the mining towns of Globe and Miami where we had a birdseye view down into a huge, active open strip copper mine. I’ve overflown the open pit mine at Bagdad, AZ many times, but the mine at Miami had to be at least 10 times the size. My passengers had driven past the place just the other day and were very interested in seeing what was hidden from the ground.

We continued along US 60 to Superior, then turned south to get a good look at what my passengers said was the largest strip mine in the world, between Superior and Kearny. It certainly was huge — both deep and wide, surrounded by leech fields and tailings piles. We could see giant dump trucks — and a few normal sized vehicles that provided a sense of scale — driving up and down the ramps to the mine’s bottom.

From there, we headed back, following the course of the Gila River for a short while, then hugging the mountain foothills to avoid an oddly placed Restricted area that appeared on both my chart and GPS. We followed US 60 into Apache Junction, where my passengers pointed out the condo they were staying in and speculated whether it was one of their wives that they saw in the hot tub. Then back into Falcon Field. A total of 1.7 billable hours.

On both flights, I had wonderful, friendly passengers who didn’t make unreasonable requests and seemed pleased with their flights. My helicopter handled very well (as usual) and I enjoyed the flying. But the best part of all — at least for me — was getting out and flying someplace different.

My helicopter is now down in Mesa, AZ, getting it’s annual inspection. I expect it back right before Christmas. Then it’s back to doing the work I like best — taking people for flights around Arizona.

What do you think?