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  • Jason Starke

Power-Line Pilots: Wired for Safety


One of the most important safety lessons for aspiring pilots is awareness of the wire environment and the importance of navigating safely around the wires, towers, and related infrastructure of the electrical and telecommunications grid. It seems wrong that a collision with a slender, nearly invisible wire can cause serious (sometimes fatal) damage to small and large helicopters alike, but it happens all too often. And as the grid grows, so does the risk for rotorcraft pilots, who spend more time in the wire environment — below 1,000 feet — than do fixed-wing pilots.

But some choose to spend their flying careers in proximity to live transmission lines. The pilots who fly utility patrol, repair, and construction missions operate every day in a challenging environment that the rest of us actively try to “see and avoid.” What these pilots routinely do sounds like a daredevil stunt at first. Suspend a lineman in a small platform below the helicopter, then fly that person so they can work on live transmission lines. Your rotor tips are feet away from towers or lines as you hover in place, applying constant inputs to keep the helicopter and its precious cargo — the lineman — in place.You have to ask yourself... are these pilots crazy?

A Thorough Approach to Workplace Safety

It’s easy to imagine this scenario going south fast, until you learn that the utility patrol and construction (UPAC) sector of U.S. helicopter operations actually has one of the best safety records, compared to other sectors. The utilities and UPAC operators have invested considerable thought, time, energy, and money into safety-enhancing equipment, training, and procedures.

“Long before a lineman ever attaches to a longline, the specific task he or she is trying to accomplish is thoroughly analyzed by experienced pilots, linemen, mechanics, engineers, and safety professionals,” says David Feerst, director of safety at Winco Powerline Services. “A list of potential hazards is developed, and the risks of those hazards meticulously calculated. Next, the utility or operator establishes three layers of hazard controls to reduce these risks as much as is reasonably practicable.

”Engineering controls are the highest order of hazard controls but take considerable time to develop and perfect. A UPAC-sector aircraft may require a supplemental type certificate or field modifications approval just to be properly configured to perform the work safely and in compliance with FAA regulations. Other modifications may be necessary, such as a side mount for the cargo hook for wire pulling or ruggedized interiors and exteriors to protect aircraft from damage.After engineering controls, administrative controls offer the best level of protection.

These come in the form of standard operating procedures: all-encompassing procedural documents for accomplishing each specific task. The procedures explain, step-by-step, how the task is to be conducted and specify any required training or equipment. They also incorporate hundreds of administrative controls in the form of limitations (such as weight, fuel, nose angle, wind, and so forth) and prescriptive methodologies for performing specific tasks that avoid specifically identified hazards.

Finally, most power-line services performed by helicopter-based crews require specific equipment. Special harnesses, fall protection, helmets, radios, gloves, or nonconductive or fire-resistant clothing may be required for one or both crew members. Tools may incorporate special safety features, such as use of nonconductive materials or breakaway design. Special low-stretch nonconductive longlines are often utilized in conjunction with weights and other engineered devices designed to increase both safety and efficiency.

Keeping an Eye on a Moving Target: Safety

Once on the job site, the entire flight — whether maintenance, repair, construction, or routine patrol — is a choreographed aerial ballet that begins with a thorough risk assessment by all personnel involved in the mission, conducted before the helicopter even fires up. Jeff Johnson, executive vice president and general counsel for Wilson Construction Company in Canby, Oregon, and also chairman of HAI’s Utilities, Patrol, and Construction (UPAC) Committee, describes how his company — like other helicopter operators in the sector — goes to great lengths to plan missions and then analyze and mitigate the risks.

“In our industry, we hold a daily safety tailboard meeting first thing in the morning, where all crew members meet before work begins,” explains Johnson. “The superintendent outlines what everybody is going to do that day, and we then do what some call a job hazard or task hazard analysis and discuss and identify the specific hazards. “Once we identify what the hazards are, we then discuss the necessary precautions that must be taken to mitigate those hazards and prevent an accident or injury. All of this is recorded in writing and signed off by each crew member,” Johnson says.

“The goal is to have the crew members openly discuss the mission with each other so that everybody understands what their roles are, and how we must work together to complete the mission safely.”Those tailboard sessions start the day with a safety plan, and as the day wears on, the focus never wavers off safety, even if the mission changes. “As an example,” Johnson says, “let’s say the mission is longline work moving materials around the job site, and we’ve tailboarded that specific mission in the morning.

But then the work plan changes and we now need to side-pull sockline [where the helicopter pulls electricity-conducting wires into place on a tower]. Now the mission has changed from having the load attached to the hook under the helicopter to a side-pull operation. This has much different risks and required precautions, including the minimum amount of fuel that is required in the tank.”

Wilson Construction policy mandates that when the mission changes, the helicopter is to land and the pilot and crew stop work and conduct a tailboard for the new mission, complete with another analysis of the risks and hazards. “If something comes up and you need to change the mission, and you haven’t talked about that new mission during the morning tailboard, we require an immediate stand-down so the crews can pull back and do a completely new task hazard analysis for that new mission.... This is the kind of management of change that is crucial to maintaining the highest level of safety possible,” says Johnson.

Training for Power-Line Work

In the UPAC sector, training is a critical, complex, and continuous endeavor. Utilities and contractors usually provide a pilot coming into the sector with months of additional training before he or she is deemed ready to fly alone and tackle the challenges of working in this obstacle-rich environment.

However, the pilot’s skills and experience in the cockpit are not the only consideration when assessing abilities.“The specific training for power-line operations starts with an individual’s overall attitude toward safety,” says Ron Stewart, director of helicopter operations and chief pilot for Wilson Construction, and a certificated flight instructor with commercial and instrument ratings. “Any pilot working in the power utility industry must possess a high level of situational awareness and a thorough understanding of the work environment and all associated risks.

Each task conducted with the helicopter poses its own risk, and it’s true that different tasks require different skill sets and varying levels of proficiency.“The one consistent risk in all UPAC helicopter operations in the wire environment is the very real risk of wire strike. Wire strikes have been the No. 1 killer in the helicopter industry overall, and the power utility industry is no different.

This risk is mitigated only through continued education of what the hazards look like, how to read your environment, constant situational awareness, effective crew resource management, and consistent awareness that no pilot, regardless of their experience level, is immune to a wire strike.” (See “Safety Below 1,000 Feet” below to learn more about how you can fly safely in the wire environment.)

Helicopters Essential Tool for Power Utilities

Some may be surprised to learn how extensively helicopters are employed by the utility industry, but with an ever-increasing demand for electrical energy, the task of maintaining existing lines and constructing new lines to meet that demand has been immense. If you consider the large industrial scale of power-generating and transmission facilities, the usefulness of the helicopter quickly becomes apparent.

Utility companies use helicopters to economically cover a wide inspection area that often includes remote or difficult terrain, checking on the condition of the utility infrastructure and even monitoring vegetation growth. Once repairs are necessary, helicopters again come into play, hoisting linemen, equipment, or entire towers into precise position, economically and safely.

At California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Director of Aviation Services Michael Curtin uses eight vendors with access to approximately 43 helicopters to service the utility’s 18,000 circuit miles of transmission line and 7,000 miles of gas transmission pipe. “The efficiencies provided by helicopter work procedures drastically reduce the time it takes to do a project, thereby reducing expensive labor costs. Our large service territory and environmental restrictions require a high volume of helicopter services,” says Curtain.

Like other utilities, PG&E flies linemen in helicopters to visually inspect lines using both thermal imaging cameras and corona cameras, which detect ultraviolet emissions. Maintenance and construction work performed includes lifting of lineman on and off towers and poles, setting poles and tower tops, pulling sock line, and washing and replacing insulators. PG&E also uses helicopters to keep its hydroelectric facilities up and running, performing dam inspections, hydro management, and flume, penstock, and canal repair and construction.

A little farther south in California, Southern California Edison (SCE) is one of the only U.S. investor-owned utilities with its own in-house flight department to support SCE infrastructure and respond to problems with the grid. The utility runs a fleet that includes Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3 and EC135 P2 models and the Bell B205A++.

Patrolling the Grid

One of a UPAC pilot’s most important functions is to make sure the grid is operating properly by inspecting power lines — everything from small wood-pole lines to large transmission lines. And according to SCE Chief Pilot (and HAI board member) Torbjorn “TC” Corell, power-line patrol is some of the most dangerous work UPAC pilots can perform.

“The risk exposures of power-line patrol may sometimes exceed that of external load missions,” Corell says. “The pilot is in the dangerous shaded area of the helicopter’s height-velocity diagram all day long, only a few feet away from an energized circuit, with overhead crossings and other wires nearly invisible ready to make your day miserable.”

At SCE, pilots are only endorsed for power-line patrols after long and rigorous training, Corell explains. “We start training by having the pilot tag along with senior patrolmen on distribution and transmission patrols in their patrol truck before the pilot moves on to a ride-along program with qualified pilots on various power-line patrols. The pilot is required to fly 30 hours of power-line patrols with a qualified SCE pilot before completing a practical flight course with a unit trainer. This is a six-hour practical course followed by a power-line patrol check ride with the chief pilot where the pilot will pass or fail.”

The Business Side of the Sector

When it comes to the financials of the UPAC sector, the contracting portion of the business is pretty straightforward. Most utility projects are put out to bid and awarded based on a number of factors, starting with considerations of the specific equipment needed to perform the job. A UPAC operator will determine the types of helicopters needed, how much ground personnel will be involved, and the flight hours required not only on the job site but also the mobilization flight hours required to fly to the job location.

“We have a cost per flight hour that we use to calculate costs of a job to the utility,” Wilson Construction’s Johnson says. Utilities will usually be charged a daily minimum even if a job is postponed because of weather once the helicopter is on site, but the operator may negotiate these minimums on larger or longer projects.

Because certain tasks may require a specific type of helicopter, operators occasionally subcontract with one another, depending on mission needs. “While the customer is the utility company, we often subcontract to another operator to do our heavy-lift helicopter work, and on occasion, though not frequently, we assist other contractors with our MD 500s to pull sockline or other lighter work,” Johnson says.

Some of that heavy-lift work in the UPAC sector is performed by Columbia Helicopters, which operates Chinooks (both military and civilian versions) and Vertol 107-IIs, depending on the weight requirements of the job. Dan Sweet, Columbia’s public relations manager, explains that the company’s Chinooks are capable of carrying loads of up to 26,000 pounds, allowing them to carry complete tower structures. The 107-IIs flown by Columbia have a capacity of 11,000 pounds, which makes them ideal for carrying single-pole towers or carrying components of larger tower structures. Columbia holds the civilian type certificates for both the Model 234 Chinook and the Vertol 107-II.

“The huge, fully assembled towers you see crisscrossing the land,” Sweet says, “look very impressive when hanging below a helicopter, but are usually well below the weight-lifting capacity of the helicopter.”

Helicopters Keep Us Going

In our everyday world, electricity is always there, in the background. But it doesn’t take too long into a power outage to realize how much we depend on it for — well, for everything. When you evaluate the work that goes into building and maintaining a power grid, it becomes clear that the helicopters of the UPAC sector and the hard work of their pilots and crews play an important role in keeping our modern world going.