Helicopter pilots play chicken with high-voltage power lines so crews can work on live wires.
- By James R. Chiles
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
I met up with Kurtgis last August at a power line training facility operated by American Electric Power near South Bend, Indiana. Performing for a small group of electric-utility maintenance managers, Kurtgis’ crew took a Bell 206 JetRanger through its paces: power-washing insulators to blast off dirt that can cause a short circuit to the tower, hanging a big orange plastic ball on the topmost wires to warn off aircraft, and bolting on spacer brackets that keep parallel wires from chafing each other in the wind.
Much live-line maintenance work involves a lineman sitting on an aluminum platform suspended from the helicopter frame. From this perch, sitting just below the pilot, the lineman has a better reach and posture than he would achieve by leaning out the helicopter door (and the pilot can easily keep him in close sight). It also provides a secure mounting for his generator or air compressor for power tools. Under federal aviation regulations, such an external load puts a helicopter in a restricted category. A crew must be able to jettison the platform in an emergency and therefore cannot hover over occupied buildings or congested areas while carrying it. A lineman working from a platform connects his safety harness to the helicopter rather than to the platform.
In some cases the lineman hangs 50 feet or more below the helicopter at the end of a string of “hot sticks,” rigid fiberglass rods. Since fiberglass does not conduct electricity, the pilot can drop off the lineman at places that the helicopter could not safely approach.
Airmobile’s chief pilot, Doug Lane, flew helicopter gunships for a year in Vietnam and was shot down twice; on the way to Airmobile he flew freight, did traffic reporting, and shuttled oilfield workers to platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Lane, on top of learning new regulations, power line technology, and his company’s specific procedures, an incoming pilot needs to break through a mental barrier to be willing to bring the lineman close enough to the wire—about eight inches from his chest. “When he first comes in,” Lane says, “he’s saying to himself, ‘I don’t want to hurt this guy,’ meaning the lineman, so he’s keeping his distance from the lines. But everything the lineman does is from the upper body, because he’s sitting on the platform.” At times linemen work with pulleys, clamps, and tools that are too heavy to reach out very far with. “The pilot can work [a lineman] to death in two hours if he stays too far away,” Lane said. “He wants the work right in his face.”
A crucial part of a new pilot’s training is to ride with a crew, watching how an experienced pilot helps the lineman and vice versa. That’s why Markus Schiess donned his international-orange flight coveralls one August day and joined a Haverfield crew and its MD 500 helicopter in a meadow in the Appalachian Mountains of central Pennsylvania. Schiess’ logbook shows over 5,000 hours hauling logs in Alaska, running low along rivers in Africa to spray pesticide, instructing in light helicopters, and transporting executives in Taiwan. Schiess fit well the power-line personality profile that Darryl Ed, head of Haverfield, had described: meticulous, confident, with a good sense of humor and an enjoyment of life. Daredevils, Ed had said, need not apply.
In less than a month, Schiess would be doing power line work in Chile for Haverfield, and this week was an opportunity to pick up pointers from pilot Mark Campolong and his crew, foreman Ken Black, lineman Jeff Pigott, and data man Craig McCleaf, who tracks work accomplished and notes any power line damage not visible from the ground. Joining them was Al Knerr, a crew chief from Pennsylvania Power and Light, the owners of the line.
At 10 a.m., before operations started, Black called a quick safety meeting. Though his crew had been working on the 34-mile Montour, Columbia, and Frackville transmission line all summer, taking old hardware off and bolting on new equipment, Black went over the basics again. The three conductors carried a total 230,000 volts; they were spaced far enough apart that the helicopter could hover alongside the center conductor. At Haverfield’s request, Pennsylvania Power and Light had set the line to “manual reclosure” so that if anything got shocked it would be only once rather than the three times that would occur as automatic reclosers tried to restore service to the line.
Black pulled out a dog-eared wallet card listing the minimum distances the helicopter needs to keep in this particular voltage situation—eight feet from a conductor when between wires, five feet from a conductor when between a wire and trees—to prevent a short circuit from passing through the helicopter. “Whatever distance it says, we double it,” Campolong added for Schiess’ benefit.