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Closer to Superman

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Rocky Mountain linemen learn to fly using helicopter long-line maintenance

See more photos on Flickr.

by Lisa Meiman 

It’s like riding a roller coaster, except your stomach stays where it belongs. It’s like skydiving, but without the plummeting. It’s like those amusement park rides with the swings, minus the dizzying circles. It’s like base jumping most of all, or so I hear, but considerably safer.  

In short, flying under a helicopter from a long line is unlike anything else.  

The week of Aug. 31, about 25 Rocky Mountain linemen attended a day-long training followed by a two-day field trial in Laramie, Wyoming, to see if using helicopter long-line maintenance will become RM’s newest technique for transmission work.  

“We are here to introduce another tool to get the job done,” said RM Foreman III Lineman Ed Hunt at the classroom training, Sept. 1. “There are environmental benefits and can be cost savings. We are going to compare doing a job with the helicopter and with bucket trucks and see what happens.”  

Sierra Nevada linemen gave the training, having used long-line maintenance for years to make repairs and install equipment on lines in the rugged and environmentally sensitive California landscape.  

“We have been using long line to transition linemen to, from and between towers for about three years now,” said SN Lineman James Hill. “It took a long time to get there. SN began using long-line maintenance about 10 years ago, starting with flying material and tools to the linemen on structures. We attended a three-day long-line training course at Pacific Gas and Electric and knew we would see benefits using that method.”  

After the classroom portion, which covered Western’s procedures for transmission line helicopter maintenance in Chapter 19 of the Power System Maintenance Manual, the linemen moved to Snowy Range Substation outside Laramie to demonstrate they understood the procedures. Linemen used the long-line method to fly to a wood H-frame structure and get into a work position above the crossarm. Then, they were picked up again and flown back to the landing zone.  

“This technique is completely voluntary,” said Hunt. “We don’t want to force anyone to do this. There is plenty of work that can be done on the ground and using other methods.” 

There were skeptics in the crowd and linemen wary about how effective the technique would be. Even so, almost everyone lined up with their full-body harnesses, special helmets, ear protection, gloves and hooks and gave one another ‘buddy checks’.  

Early fliers landed with big grins, giving their doubting coworkers positive encouragement that they only need to “just try it.” Most everyone did, while crews recorded people’s first flights on iPhones and cameras. 

Long-line method proves its worth

With the linemen signed off on the training, it was time to see how valuable the helicopter long-line method was in practice. From Sept. 2-3, the 25 linemen replaced overhead ground wire and fiber hardware on 10 miles of the Miracle Mile-to-Snowy Range 230-kilovolt line.  

“You do your job like you would in bucket trucks or on hooks,” said Hill.  

It may have been many linemen’s second time using the helicopter, but the process flowed like a well-oiled machine. The linemen were split into three groups of eight, each responsible for one section of the 10 miles. Two remained at the landing zone to communicate with the helicopter. The other six were equipped with a bag that carried four structures’ worth of materials. Each lineman was flown from landing zone to structure. The helicopter would pick up and drop off the five other linemen in the group, two per structure. By the time the sixth lineman was on the structure, the first was ready to be taken to the next structure. 

“We did 10 structures in an hour,” said Foreman III Lineman Ron Burbridge with a grin. “10!” 

In comparison, RM crews had replaced the same hardware on 47 miles of this line using bucket trucks earlier in the summer. It took 20 minutes to replace the hardware on both sides of one structure, after the bucket truck was set up, about another 10 minutes alone. That’s five bucket trucks to one helicopter for the same work in an hour. Compare, too, five bucket trucks churning up land, needing access roads, going around sensitive areas, using gas and maneuvering rough terrain. 

“Within the past year, RM crews have had to work around the newly federally protected sage grouse. We also have historical sites on easements such as the Oregon Trail, pioneer grave sites and tipi rings left behind by Native American tribes,” said Cheyenne Field Maintenance Manager Will Schnyer. “Using helicopters reduces the impact to these sites and species, as well as the surrounding natural resources, by simply going over them.” 

There are also safety benefits to long-line maintenance over climbing. Climbing is tiring and challenging, and fatigue and overexertion can lead to accidents in the field. RMM Vice President of Transmission System Asset Management Nick Klemm shared, “Headquarters Electrical Engineer John Quintana performed a risk analysis, and the results showed that using helicopter long-line to transport people is no more or less dangerous than doing it with a bucket truck.” That assessment did not account for driving to and from the work site, which brings its own hazards. 

“The helicopter was well worth it, and, hopefully, we will be able to continue the practice,” said Cheyenne Foreman II Lineman Ron Miller.  

Other RM maintenance leadership agreed with Miller’s assessment. “The general consensus was the training and helicopter work method was a success and worth the time, expense and effort,” said Schnyer. “Every lineman that participated expressed the desire to incorporate the long-line method for future work that takes place within RM. For now, we will likely use the helicopter long-line method on a case-by-case basis.” 

Helicopter hovers over lineman inside substation
A helicopter hovers over the landing zone at Snowy Range Substation outside Laramie, Wyoming, Sept. 1. In long-line maintenance, linemen and their equipment are flown to structures instead of using a bucket truck or climbing. (Photo by Lisa Meiman). See more photos on Flickr.

​Options for long-line maintenance

Helicopter long-line maintenance can be used for certain types of work including: 

  • Repairing damaged conductor mid-span 
  • Placing lineman at work locations on structures and conductor
  • Transporting tools and equipment to the lineman
  • Landing conductor carts
  • Shield wire repair
  • Replacing or installing aerial marker balls, spacers, dampers, insulators, guards for wire stringing over energized lines over road crossings and bird diverters
Page Last Updated: 9/18/2015 12:13 PM