Veteran pipe welder Jim Kwiatkowski talks to Barry Wood about the challenges, changes and colourful characters he’s seen throughout a 40-year career.
Jim Kwiatkowski began his trade at a time when Australia’s energy and resources boom was getting into full swing. Arriving in Australia in 1949 from Europe, the Kwiatkowskis were first based in Queensland before Jim’s father relocated them to Western Australia in order to take full advantage of the resources boom, before moving to Melbourne in 1954.
Here, Jim began his working career in a bank – an environment unsuited to his desire for travel and adventure. “From here I decided to do a trade, and I did a trade in a boiler shop as a boiler maker/welder,” Jim says.
When he finished his apprenticeship in 1969, Jim returned to Western Australia. Jim undertook maintenance work for Shell Installations in Port Hedland, Broome and Kununurra, and from there went to Darwin to work with a tank and vessel manufacturer. “I came back to Melbourne in 1970 and started to get involved in a lot of refinery and pipe work,” Jim says.
Early on in his pipeline welding career, Jim worked in places such as Altona, Victoria, on smaller pipelines with lengths of 3 km and diameters between 8 and 12 inches. His big break came on the
34 inch Moomba to Sydney Pipeline in 1974.
Repairing the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline
Jim worked as a welder repairing internal cracks on Spread 2 of the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline being constructed by Australian Pipeline Construction. He and three others repaired the pipeline by entering the pipe on “˜moon machines’ that acted as a trolley moving the welders down the pipe. Jim says that they entered just out of West Wylong in western New South Wales, and finished up the job somewhere just behind Goulburn.
“In that period we completed somewhere in the vicinity of over 1,400 repairs; the pipe’s cracks actually crossed the bead, and to repair them took a lot of time.
“We had some close calls – once, when we were on a steep hill, the braking system sheared off and we flew down the pipe… I could see the end coming up and I thought we were going to be human cannon balls. The machine pulled up four joints from the end. I can tell you, the heart was beating a little bit.”
Jim also recalls that while the technicians had to deal with noise problems, fumes, flood waters and stubborn machines, they also had to deal with visits from surprising guests.
“One time I look down the pipe, and there’s two eyes looking back at me – I got a little bit of a scare. I slowly edged up and there it was – a sheep!”
Jim says that that period in the industry was “an adventure and a challenge”. “At 28 years old, with a mortgage and a young family, no one thought anything about it, you just went and did the job and that was it. You were paid very well, and all the fears of claustrophobia went out the window when the money was right.
“From then on I just loved the pipeline industry, and have been involved ever since, working for different companies. I eventually started a mechanical contract company with my partner Tony DiGioacchino, and we operated in the 1980s right through to the 1990s on a lot of projects like the Jackson project with PBM, and work in Moomba as well as doing work for Santos on jobs in Tirrawarra and Toolachee.”
After selling his share of the company and joining McConnell Dowell in 1992, Jim worked on projects throughout South East Asia and Australia.
Working with MacDow
“One of the most challenging projects that we came across was in Burma – we did the Yetagun project, which was started from the Andaman Sea right across Burma up into the mountains and jungles of Thailand,” says Jim.
“Another was in Vietnam – we constructed two pipelines – a 30 inch and a 24 inch – as part of the Nam Con Son Pipelines project. The pipe was purchased by BP and it had a very high residual magnetism, which caused a lot of welding problems that I had to overcome.”
The terrain surrounding the 800 km Mt Isa to Ballera gas pipeline was also difficult, and Jim says the project’s management team solved the issue with new equipment and a good attitude. “The whole psychology of the job was to make it go and go well, which it did. We finished the whole project about two months ahead of schedule.”
In 2005, Jim moved from jungles to deserts, working on the 450km project from Port Hedland to the Telfer mine in the Pilbara. “That was a good productive project; the only downside was the stoppages through cyclones, as we were shut down twice and sent home for months at a time until the land had dried out and we were able to start again,” says Jim.
Characters of the industry
Colourful characters like Graeme Whitty, Vin Pollock, Peter Rohshiem, Richard Robinson, Ken Bilston, Corbett Gore, Tom Baker and Mark Twycross all helped to shape Jim’s memories from the field.
“Jeff Shepherd made such a difference to the Australian pipeline industry, and colourful people like Tom Ford were fantastic to work with,” says Jim.
“People like Ian McLaren, Carter Johnson and Peter England were some of the greatest guys we worked with. Peter Anderson and John Bristow were magnificent organisers, and people like Jimmy Gubb were irreplaceable to the industry.”
Jim believes the industry has always shown great camaraderie, with a motto of “˜work hard and produce’.
“Everybody was happy in those days – the 1970s and 80s were fantastic years, and with the people you worked with it was always a team effort. It wasn’t just “˜us and them’ – it was “˜us’; the client and the contractor worked together.”
Jim enjoys his current work as an internationally-accredited and certified senior welding inspector and welding superintendent. His time with McConnell Dowell has been “a great 19 years”, and he hopes to reach the 25-year mark.
“McConnell Dowell has been good to me, and I would like to finish my whole working career with the company as they’ve been terrific,” says Jim.
“In the years that I’ve put in [to this industry], I hope that I’ve contributed to it,” Jim says. “It’s a great industry, it’s a magnificent industry, and I’m just proud to be part of it.”