ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Richard L. “Dick” McLinden of Marion spent one of his careers patrolling the highways and back roads as sheriff of Chase County.
These days, McLinden is still on patrol-but he uses a different method and his area is enormously larger.
McLinden patrols oil pipelines while flying for Eagle Sky Patrol, a company based in South Dakota.
“I’ve been a pilot for 36 years, but I’ve flown for this company for the past six years,” McLinden said.
Eagle Sky Patrol, owned by John Kruse, employs eight full-time and two part-time pilots who patrol underground pipelines in 11 states. Together, they keep watch for leaks, unauthorized construction work or intruders within the parameters of the pipeline’s right-of-way.
McLinden said most pipelines have a 50-foot right-of-way on either side, but it narrows to 20 to 40 feet in some cities.
Leaks are spotted from the air when the vegetation over the pipeline becomes discolored, but McLinden said his job is a lot tougher during the hot and dry summer months when things naturally turn brown and dry.
The underground pipelines are owned by companies such as Kansas Gas Service, Oneoak and Magellian. Eagle Sky Patrol is contracted to monitor the activities that occur above ground.
McLinden’s flying career was born out of necessity.
Managing an 11,000-acre ranch in Chase County, McLinden was responsible for checking miles of fences, mostly on horseback.
When severe weather threatened the integrity of the fences, McLinden and his crew faced several days of riding to inspect them.
Searching for an easier and quicker way, McLinden pursued a private pilot’s license and has been flying ever since.
Earlier this month, McLinden took this reporter on an inspection tour of pipelines running from El Dorado to Tulsa, Okla., and on to near Joplin, Mo., before returning to Wichita.
McLinden was fueling his Cessna 177 by 9 a.m. in anticipation of the day’s activities. Nearly 30 years old, the Cessna 177 has accumulated close to 17,000 hours of flight time.
McLinden said he had already gone through the plane’s pre-flight inspection, which consisted of looking for missing screws, making sure all cables moved freely, checking the fuel, oil and tire air pressure.
The company-owned plane is serviced by McLinden. Eagle Sky Patrol pays all the expenses, including fuel and maintenance.
Assured the plane was ready for flight, McLinden placed a call to the Kansas City center, where he was issued a “unique squawk code”-which is a four-digit number assigned to his airplane for identification purposes.
McLinden informed Kansas City he was preparing to depart from “43K,” the identifying number for the Marion airport.
“Since the 9/11 disaster, I’m assigned a different code number every day,” McLinden said. “There are 4,096 frequencies. This number, which changes every day, is what identifies us to the radars and AWAC planes.
“This way they know who we are, where we’re going, and what we’re doing.”
At 9:15 a.m., with pilot and passenger buckled into their seat belts, McLinden taxied down the runway, checked his 150-horsepower engine with a pre-flight test, gave the “thumbs-up” signal and powered up.
As the Cessna 177 reached a speed of 70 mph, the tires smoothly lifted off the ground and the plane was directed toward El Dorado.
McLinden, settling in for the day’s flight, said he’s much more comfortable flying than driving a car.
“Look around-there’s nobody else up here,” he said. “I have more of a chance running into someone driving from my house to the airport than I do up here.”
Upon arriving at an El Dorado refinery, McLinden picked up the markers that identified and marked the line he’d follow to Tulsa.
“Originally, I had to carry a map with me along with watching the markers-about a mile between each, plus interior markers-to keep track of where I was going,” McLinden said.
“But after about three months, I was able to remember every turn and direction each line takes.”
Remembering the path of a pipeline from El Dorado to Tulsa may sound like a daunting task. But McLinden is also responsible for lines that run across Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois.
McLinden said he cruises the lines at about 120 mph and at an altitude of 150 to 200 feet, which, he said, gives him ample time to assess each situation.
“The pipelines are buried 52 inches below the surface,” he said. “Most lines carry refined petroleum products, natural gas or liquefied petroleum gases such as propane or anhydrous ammonia.”
The pipelines range in size from 2 inches to 26 inches.
“Most of these lines have been buried about 70 years,” he said. “They’re all pressurized to keep the product flowing, with pressures ranging from 600 (pounds per square inch) all the way up to 3,000.”
Fog descended as the plane neared Tulsa, reducing visibility to yards rather than miles.
Nearing the end of the El Dorado-Tulsa line, McLinden was informed by the Tulsa airport of exact ceiling and visibility.
The report prompted McLinden to retrace our route several miles, since small craft aren’t allowed to fly within five miles of the Tulsa airport when the ceiling is less than 600 feet and visibility is less than two miles.
McLinden picked up the next line on the east edge of the city and headed for Sheldon, Mo., just outside Joplin.
With the promise of the “best greasy hamburger you’ve ever had,” McLinden veered off the pipeline for Afton, Okla., for lunch. But the fog convinced him to relocate the line and continue the course eastward.
“I didn’t get to be this old by being stupid,” McLinden said with a wry smile. “I want to be able to eat tomorrow, too.”
Recently, McLinden has been flying five days a week, checking each individual pipeline anywhere from daily to once every 21 days.
At about line marker 187, McLinden spotted a bulldozer too close to the line and made a note of it.
“If it’s an emergency, I’ll get on the phone and call an emergency 800 number,” he said. “If it’s not an emergency, I’ll call it in the next time I land, and the ground crew can check it out.”
Reaching the end of the pipeline near Joplin, McLinden turned the plane around and landed at Pittsburg, where the ground crew of “Gary” and “Billy” greeted McLinden as an old friend-even allowing him and his passenger to take an airport vehicle downtown to grab a bite to eat at Trapper Jacks.
With hungers satisfied, McLinden and his passenger flew to the airport at nearby Iola, where Eagle Sky Patrol has a charge account for refueling the Cessna.
Mitch Garner, the Allen County airport manager, greeted McLinden with another friendly smile, and refueled the plane.
“Mitch just took over this position, and he’s doing a great job,” McLinden said of the enthusiastic worker.
Refueled, the Cessna took to the skies again. McLinden relocated the pipeline and headed for Wichita.
Spotting an elderly farmer waving to him from below, McLinden dipped the wings of the plane in response.
“I’d lots rather have them wave at me than shoot at me,” McLinden said with a smile.
Even though Mother Nature afforded beautiful flying weather on this day, McLinden said he normally checks the weather for the area he’s patrolling ahead of time. But not much stops him.
“I’ll fly in winds up to 50 mph,” he said.
But McLinden said he has to reckon with one thing he can’t forecast: birds.
“That’s the biggest hazard I have,” he said. “Hawks, buzzards, eagles, ducks and geese are the main culprits.
“When I think I might hit one, I try to go over the top of them, since a bird will instinctively dive when threatened in mid air,” he said. “One thing you don’t want to do, is hit a bird. They can do a lot of damage.”
Flying over a busy highway reminded McLinden of the time he came upon something in Illinois he was unable to identify until he was right upon it.
“There was a car upside-down in the ditch with a lady laying in that ditch, and a little boy walking beside it-but no one else around,” McLinden said. “I circled and checked out the asphalt road beside them and landed.
“I couldn’t call 911 because I wasn’t sure where I was, but soon another vehicle came by, and we called for help,” he added. “The lady in the accident had been killed. Besides the boy walking, there was also a baby strapped in its car seat upside-down.”
McLinden said after authorities arrived, he took off and resumed his pipeline duties, never revealing his identity.
Several weeks later when he had been identified, he was informed he was somewhat of a local celebrity for his heroics-but also found there was a warrant out for his arrest for landing on the public road.
McLinden received another call later in the week from the office of the Illinois attorney general, informing him the warrant was dismissed once the full story was told.
“I still have the newspaper clippings about the ‘mysterious’ man who landed on the highway to help,” he said with a chuckle.
Nearing Wichita, McLinden checked the last 10 miles of pipeline and headed home, secure with the knowledge that the line were safe for another day.
As the plane lightly touched down on Marion County soil, the clock said 4:02. This trip had covered 526 miles, including an hour-and-20-minute lunch break and a 20-minute refueling stop.
McLinden said his longest day is a nearly 1,000-mile trip that takes him close to Chicago.
McLinden is paid either by the mile or by the hour, depending on which pipeline he’s checking. He said he feels lucky to have this job.
“It’s not really too tough of a job, but it has to be done,” he said with a smile. “I get to fly and see beautiful country.”