Esso Air World Magazine, 1974
by Betty Campbell
To Alen Hansen of Winnipeg, Canada, flying a small aircraft several hundred miles a day in the frequently turbulent air at heights between 50 and 200 feet is all in a day’s work. “Something you get used to,” he says with a smile, “even when you feel like an old shoe being shaken by a dog.”
For Mr. Hansen is the Western Area patrol pilot for TransCanada PipeLines, the natural gas transmission system which extends across Canada from Alberta to Montreal, then dips south to Vermont in the United States. In Western Canada there are four pipelines, varying in diameter from 34 to 42 inches. Buried below the ground, they lie 30 feet apart, side by side; while an extension line stretches from Winnipeg to the international border near Emerson, Manitoba. Totalling 2,500 miles of pipe, this is Al Hansen’s ‘beat’ as pipeline patrol pilot.
Every Monday morning, weather permitting, Al takes off in one of the company’s twin-engine Piper Aztecs–their call letters fittingly CF-GAZ and CF-GAS–from the home base at Winnipeg International Airport. His two-day aerial inspection of the line takes him from Winnipeg to the start of the system near Burstall, Saskatchewan.
Skimming the tree tops at around 130 miles an hour, and seldom in perfect flying conditions, Al watches closely for trouble. It could be at ground level on the line or buried six feet below. By flying at such low levels across the country looking for the proverbial ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ he has developed an uncanny skill for detecting pin-hole leaks. A patch of dead vegetation in a wheat field could indicate that escaping gas has killed the vegetation, while miniature geysers spraying earth into the air, or bubbles on a pipeline water crossing, are sure signs of a ‘pin-hole’ leak. Sometimes several passes have to be made over a particular spot to be sure whether or not a leak is present. If there is, Al radios the nearest compressor station to send out a crew to investigate before a serious problem can develop.
Al’s other commitment is keeping his plane out of trouble – particularly in choppy air when the Aztec takes on all the aspects of a bucking bronco! “Summer flying is the roughest,” he says, “when even the change from flying over a stretch of dead vegetation, then suddenly coming on to a green area will cause the plane to lose or gain elevation quickly because of the temperature variance between the two types of vegetation.”
Before taking over the Piper Aztec, Al flew a Cessna 180 on patrol. As it had a low roof, he had to wear a crash helmet as well as safety straps to protect himself against injury. Now he relies on a seat strap and a shoulder harness to hold him down in rough flying conditions.
The patrol involves about 40 percent of Al’s time, while the rest is spent transporting personnel and equipment to the many compressor stations along the line. Other highly skilled company pilots based in Ontario are, with Al, responsible for the inspection of the entire length of pipeline once a week.
New Zealand born, Al has been flying since he was 16 years old. During his war service he trained in Canada and was so impressed by the prospects in the vast country that, “I felt there had to be a place in Canadian aviation for me.” After the war he made it back to Winnipeg where he obtained his commercial license in 1950. A variety of experiences followed as Al flew for an aerial photography company, patrolled power lines and served a three-year stint as a bush pilot. In 1957, he was the first pilot hired by TransCanada PipeLines and as the line went through and natural gas became available, aerial inspection began.
The rigours of continued low flying demand top physical condition – his is no job for a weak stomach or slow reactions and, like the other pilots, he has to pass a six-month medical check. But there are lighter aspects to this hazardous occupation, which make Al feel at times, “I should have taken up bullfighting instead!” He says rural schoolchildren become so absorbed in seeing his plane flash by, they forget their own course and wind up in the ditch – bicycles and all. He has to detour around chicken, turkey and pig farms on his route, as the noise of the low-flying plane can literally scare them to death. Otherwise most of the animals have got used to the weekly iron bird visitor. To make up for his early departures there are the fiery, breathtaking sunrises and the sight of nature on the move – deer, skunks, coyotes and even an occasional bear.
Bucking bronc and all, not a job recommended for those whose knuckles turn white even in the comfort of a jumbo jet. But on that wouldn’t be traded by Al Hansen – representative of the specialized fliers who buck the pipeline route.
The image of Al Hansen, pilot and one of the founding members of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada is from the museum’s library and archive.