Safety, Airplanes and Pipelines



Have you ever flown in an airplane?

At this point in history, if you are reading this, the odds are you probably have.  Are you afraid of flying?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  The overwhelming majority of people that fly reach their destination safely.  In fact, once could argue that transportation to and from the airport is far more dangerous than flying itself (no, I have not researched the statistics).  A remarkable thing about airplanes is that today’s airplanes are amazingly reliable.  What happens when there is a problem while an airplane is in the air?  Pilots are trained to deal with problems.  Some problems are worse than others.  Most are minor.  Some require heroic action.  Can you say “Miracle on the Hudson”?  Captain Sullenberger will tell you that he does not consider himself a hero.  He was well trained and he used his skills to identify the best option.  Lives that could have easily been lost were not because of the decisions Sullenberger made and the way he implemented those decisions.  I haven’t seen the movie starring Tom Hanks yet but I understand it is fairly realistic.

Why are we talking about airplanes when this is supposed to be about pipeline safety?  Think about the similarities.  Both technologies started about the same time (the early 1900’s).  Both airplanes and pipelines are extremely reliable.  When either one has a failure, it has the potential to be catastrophic.  With both, there is the potential that innocent people could be injured or killed.  Airplanes are incredibly complex and so are pipelines.  Pilots and pipeline operators are typically very well trained.  Both are highly regulated by the same federal agency (the U.S. Department of Transportation).

When something bad happens to an airplane, the pilot is literally always considered a possible cause.  When something bad happens to a pipeline, the pipeline operator is always considered a primary suspect.

One big difference – when an airplane crashes, the pilot is ALWAYS the first to the scene of the crash!!  I know – I am a pilot and the pilot sits at the front of the airplane. That is not always true with pipeline operators.

Someone once said flying is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror (That’s my story and I am sticking to it – I could not find a source).  As a pilot, once the initial thrill of getting your license to learn wears off, a lot of flying IS (at least to me) boring.  As boring as it may be, you still have to stay vigilant.  Things can go from boring to terrifying quickly!!  The same holds true for operating a pipeline.  There may be some pipeline personnel that get a thrill out of staring at a pipeline control monitor (a lot like an air traffic control monitor), but, at least for me, that is not the same as flying an airplane.  Pipelines are in the ground.  Yes, they have to be patrolled at specific intervals depending on the pipeline but it is not the same as taking off, navigating, and finding a safe place to land.  The view from a plane several thousand feet in the air has to be more spectacular than inspecting the pipeline from the ground.

A lot of the training for pipelines is similar to the training required of people that design, build, operate and maintain airplanes.  Situational awareness is a critical factor in both.  It is important to (alert: football term ahead) “run with your head up!!”  PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU ARE DOING!!  If it doesn’t seem right, think about it some more.  It is much, much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.

There is no need to be afraid of flying and there is no need to be afraid of pipelines – but both demand respect.

Until next time – blue skies and be safe out there!!