Pilot cars lead big rigs to drill sites

FRANKLIN SQUARE – Big, heavy pieces of equipment need extra eyes and ears on the road and it’s the job of the pilot cars and drivers to make the job safe for the public and more efficient for the drilling companies.

That’s when people like Leila Andreas of Muncy, Pa., step behind the wheel of an outfitted SUV that runs in Terry’s Flag Car Service out of Berwick, Pa.

Andreas is posted to the entrance of the Grubbs’ drill site on Grafton Road in Salem Township where the first oil and gas well of Texas-based Hilcorp in Columbiana County is located.

Andreas drove five hours to get here on Tuesday.

The big rig moving day is today when the bigger components of the Hilcorp Energy rig, H&P 225, is moved from Poland to Grafton Road.

Part of the sub-structure was moved on Tuesday.

After arriving, Andreas said there were meetings and the area was checked out for sharp turns and where to place escorts around turns.

She has moved nuclear power plant turbines, M1 Abrams battle tanks and “right now it’s traffic control for these rigs,” she said.

From her vantage point at the Grubbs entrance there is a rise in the road, an abrupt ridge, just to the south and she’s concerned about it.

“That’s a safety issue we have to deal with, it could be bad,” she said, relating she’s seen similar road contours.

“I’ve seen that a couple of times … there was an impatient four-wheeler, a Jeep that didn’t want to wait.

“There’s not enough room on these small roads with the rigs for two vehicles,” she said, noting the Jeep story ended with the driver getting killed after smashing into a house.

There’s no room for slipping past on the side. It’s either stop or go off the road.

Another pilot car is posted at the state Route 558 intersection where the road use management agreement (RUMA) begins and Andreas maintains constant contact with that car.

Not a tractor, school bus or car passes by without a microphone being keyed.

“It’s so they can get in and out of these sites safely and if a car’s coming and it’s doing the speed limit, it’s not going to stop,” she explained, adding that’s why she gets out there with her flashing amber lightbar, bright orange caution flag and a big “Stop” sign.

But that ridge to the south will keep her worried.

“When we need police assistance we usually have direct contact numbers,” she said.

“We don’t go through 911, the local authorities numbers are on the permit.”

Andreas explained the pilot cars communicate when rigs enter and leave the site so room is available to incoming traffic.

“You have to wait for one to leave before coming in … there’s not enough room for two vehicles (on the site),” she said.

It’s all like a well planned football play.

That’s why the designated routes are so important.

“We don’t leave the route. We do not go off the route,” she repeated.

“That’s a cardinal no-no … that could get you fired … the rig possibly could not be turned around,” she said.

Pilot car drivers also perform “high pole” work which entails lifting low-hanging wires so rigs can get in and out.

She laughs, “People get a little upset when we take their cable (TV) down. We work with law enforcement to get things moved.”

Along with the travel and meeting “a lot of nice people” Andreas is a believer in her job.

“The fact that we’re drilling for gas in this country, I just hope that one day we’re not dependent of foreign oil … and I believe in wind energy.

“The bottom line is we don’t have to rely on foreign oil.”

Larry Shields can be reached at lshields@salemnews.net