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High Tension

Helicopter pilots play chicken with high-voltage power lines so crews can work on live wires.

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Brian Parker of Haverfield, a longtime power line pilot, compares the difficulty to riding a unicycle on a moving walkway while someone flicks the walkway power on and off. Campolong told me, “My mother-in-law asked me once, ‘Why are you so tired? You just sit around at work all day.’ “

In less than half a minute, Pigott, sitting comfortably on his platform, pried off two metal spacers installed 30 years ago when the line was built, slung them under the fuselage, and disconnected the helicopter from the wire. Campolong backed away, moved a hundred feet southeast, and came back to the wire so Pigott could bolt on a new aluminum spacer bracket in a new location. In 10 minutes this part of the span was done and Campolong headed back to the landing zone for more hardware. “Piece of cake,” he said over the intercom.

Before I left, Campolong handed me a poem he wrote. It ended: “Next time you turn on the switches without a thought/Remember the guys who are repairing it ‘hot.’ ” And, he could have added, if you happen to see a platform-equipped helicopter hovering inches from a power line, don’t bother calling the cops.

About James R. Chiles

James R. Chiles contributes frequently to Air & Space/Smithsonian. His book on the social history of helicopters and “helicoptrians” is The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks.

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