Solo Notes: Army Vet Shares Surveying Story
“From my perspective, being drawn to land surveying was like being drawn to my wife of 30 years. It was love at first sight,” says Russell Anthony Novotny Jr., PLS. He spent most of his childhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, until his father decided to move the family to southern California. As time went on, the family grew and Novotny became the oldest of eight siblings. “I did not care for the chaos of southern California, even back then at a young age,” he says. So, upon graduation from high school, he eagerly ventured north, near Reno, Nev., to a town that had a junior college that provided an associate of arts degree in technical forestry — Lassen Junior College. It was located in timber country and one of the first required classes was forest mapping. After graduation, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic division hired Novotny and several of his classmates to become field party chiefs in the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. They ran vertical elevation control points with a plane table alidade for photogrammetric control. They also took on geodetic control projects, setting triangulation or trilateration station monuments with helicopter access support.
Novotny did this for 13 years, moving 32 times state to state. “That includes military time as the military equivalent of topographic surveyor and a year in Vietnam, where I was hit with a rifle grenade while taking differential leveling observations and was literally looking through an instrument at the instant of being hit. I lost five pints of blood and barely survived a near-death experience,” he says.
Returning to work as a USGS field party chief after the military, he realized he needed a four-year bachelor’s degree to be competitive with peers who had built their work reputation while he was away for three years in the U.S. Army. Using the GI Bill, he went back to school and obtained a Bachelor of Science engineering degree in surveying and photogrammetry at California State University, Fresno. “On one of my field mapping projects, I suddenly had a vision of how very well meshed it would be to combine land surveying and mapping with real estate sales of mostly rural and remote properties — a vision which became my reality in 1990 and what I have been doing since,” Novotny says.
Selling real estate has fed his preference for land surveying work to the point that he is now trying to sell the real estate side of the company in order to focus on land surveying. In 2011, he taught a class for continuing education credits to more than 100 Montana real estate agents covering GIS, GPS and boundary law. He says he would like to more informally teach more real estate agents how to use GPS and GIS to prevent them from putting “For Sale” signs on the wrong rural or remote acreage. “Motivation for this is so that the buyer does not start building his or her cabin or dwelling only to discover too late that the real estate agent gave them bad advice about boundaries and so that they are actually building on the property they thought they bought. I feel so strongly about real estate agents needing to do a truly more professional job of protecting buyers of hard-to-define rural and remote acreages that I have proposed the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) approach the National Association of Realtors to get the Realtor Code of Ethics improved by saying, ‘no unauthorized practice of land surveying,’ much like the document already reads, ‘no unauthorized practice of law’ on behalf of the legal profession.”
Today, more than five decades into his mapping career, Novotny says his time in the military is still beneficial. He says it brings a disciplined and systematic approach to the business side, and to performing land surveying and mapping. “One must become self sufficient as a problem solver in running his/her own land surveying business.”
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
NOVOTNY: The unforeseen challenges as to professional judgment, not knowing what lies ahead over that next ridge and many projects working outdoors amongst native wildlife.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
NOVOTNY: I have many memorable stories — most too long for this format. A shorter one is this: I was one of about a half dozen USGS field party chiefs assigned to do geodetic control and classification of mapworthy detail in Indian Springs, Nev. Our field office was a government trailor on the Nellis Air Force Range (NAFR). The Thunderbirds trained there and would fly over low level and shake our office while we might be inking detail on an aerial photo. Above a certain elevation was the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. We had to set horizontal and vertical mapping control all over both massive government installations, but the NAFR told us when we were driving our 4-by-4 Department of Interior trucks on the bombing range that we could not drive off the main roads or drive up or down the numerous ephemeral washes to go cross country. Supposedly, this was to protect us from unexploded ordnance. This got very old and inefficient. So, we bought leaf rakes at a local hardware store. We’d leave a road and four-wheel up or down a wash, but we would rake over our tire tracks after we left a road and then do the same thing when we returned to a road from four-wheeling cross country.
Toward the end of the project, I was running elevations with a plane table alidade in a very remote part of the project, which took hours and hours to drive to — my rodman and I thought we were all by ourselves in our extreme remoteness. Suddenly, out of the blue, a Thunderbird dive bombed us, flew over our heads about 100 feet above us followed by an overwhelming sonic boom. It was a total surprise and scared the hell out of us. We suspected the pilot was laughing himself sick. Midway through this same mapping project, we had contract helicopters and pilots show up to get us to some control points needed in the high country. It was a warm, sunny day, so I did not pack a lot of bulky, warm clothing when I was dropped off on a jagged ridge top with my theodolite and electronic-distance-measuring equipment (EDME) by the chopper. The project engineer was on the valley floor below me in his 4-by-4. We took reciprocal EDME measurements with each other. By the time we got to vertical angle readings needed, a snow blizzard had suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere, making visibility almost zero. I had to find sagebrush to burn behind a wind-protected huge boulder to try to stay warm. The PE kept telling me on the radio that the storm looked like it would pass soon, so we could finish up the angulation. I waited and waited, all the time getting colder and colder. I remembered there was a vertical cliff directly below me when the helicopter dropped me off. I finally told the PE I was not waiting any longer and was walking off the mountain by myself. I asked the PE to have a rodman go to my truck on the valley floor and turn on the parking lights because it was getting dark. After I dropped a couple thousand feet, I was below the snow blizzard and everything became contrastingly clear. I found my truck lights in the dark and then drove back to Indian Springs. Several of my cohorts spent the night out because the ships could not get back in to pick them up.
Another interesting story is published in the Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors (MARLS) journal, if I remember correctly. It concerns my trying to get first order triangulation angles off of a 113-foot-tall inner and outer Bilby steel tower protruding above the jungle in Vietnam. The tower had been hit with a mortar round, rendering it quite unstable, and a south Vietnamese soldier ally who had previously been on it had been killed outright — very eerie mission indeed.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
NOVOTNY: Rabid territorialism many property owners have; worse than two bull elk fighting over a harem. There are many NIMBY (not in my back yard) land owners out there that feel if they were there first they want no one else there (next door) if they can prevent it. I currently have three 10-acre lots where I’ve retraced boundaries and have them for sale, but where several neighbors have illegally locked out a dedicated, legal access to them. The sheriff’s office claims they will not do anything about it without a judge’s order because, “It is a civil matter and not a criminal matter.”
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
NOVOTNY: I actively participate in MARLS, I read POB and other professional literature in what little extra time I have. As a MARLS member, I have advocated for: (1) Insertions of “...no unauthorized practice of land surveying...” in the National Association of Realtors Code of Ethics, which Realtors are required to take a class in at least every four years; (2) Legislating a state $1,000 fine for willful or negligent destruction of property corner monuments by careless excavators, utilities installers, road builders, fence builders, cultivators, adjoining property owners, etc.; and (3) Form the habit of using “land” surveyor when talking or writing about our profession because too much of the public “surveyors” can be construed as being merely census takers hired off the street, or poll takers. The average Joe does not understand the many years an understudy land-surveyor-in-training must spend under a supervisory PLS before a state will allow him or her to take the rigorous, grueling, time-constrained PLS exam of 16 hours.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
NOVOTNY: Learn as much as you can any way you can, including attaining a Bachelor of Science degree, including taking business courses like writing contracts. If you want to feed the pipeline for your land surveying business, I suggest getting involved in a related business such as real estate sales. If you want to make a smaller leap at this, sign your land surveying business up as an affiliate with a local board of Realtors, like mortgage lenders, appraisers, title examiners and home inspectors do. Then participate in functions held for affiliates. Help not only your own land surveying business, but the profession in general by teaching classes that earn continuing education credits for Realtors, appraisers, title examiners, etc.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
NOVOTNY: It has progressed from angle measurement with transits to high-precision theodolites, from distance measurement with steel tapes to electronic lasers and GPS, and from computations made with logarithms on Marchant mechanical calculators and slide rules to scientific calculators.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at email@example.com.