Western Area Power Administration longline helicopter method

Western Linemen Take to the Air

Oct. 29, 2014
California journeymen perform maintenance work over protected, rugged lands using a long-line helicopter method.

California linemen often face two challenges when upgrading or rebuilding their utility’s infrastructure: accessing environmentally protected lands and taking a planned power outage.

Through its helicopter program, however, Western Area Power Administration’s Sierra Nevada Region has circumvented both of these issues. For the past five years, more than a dozen linemen have participated in the federal agency’s long-line program.

Instead of working out of a bucket truck, the linemen work 60 ft to 100 ft below the helicopter. As a result, the helicopter team can access structures near farmers’ crops, wetlands or other environmentally sensitive areas without disrupting the land or the native wildlife.

Also, by working live, the linemen don’t have to take a power outage, which is becoming increasingly challenging, says Shayne Bender, a journeyman lineman for Western in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“As a society where we depend on electricity every moment of the day, it is more difficult to have power outages and de-energize the line,” he says. “Therefore, it requires more hot-stick and bare-hand methods and the use of helicopters for energized work.”

Linemen place a new marker ball on a static wire while suspended midair by a long line from a helicopter in California.

Training Crews

Western’s California office begins training its field workforce to use helicopters during their apprenticeship. As part of its helicopter training program, the apprentices must review the rules and regulations within the training manual and participate in hands-on training before demonstrating their skills and knowledge to the helicopter pilot.

During the full-day training session, the apprentices learn how to safely fly with the helicopter pilot from ground to ground, from the ground to a wood pole and steel pole, to the mid-span, and also onto the conductor. They also learn how to land carts and hardware on the conductor, perform rescues and work energized.

Once the apprentices top out as journeymen, they can join the utility’s helicopter team. To maintain their certification, the journeymen must fly a minimum of 25 hours per year. If they don’t meet this requirement, they must complete the refresher training session again.

Lineman Dean Faller, Foreman III Lineman Brian Adams, Journeyman Linemen Ryan Yeager and Ryan Wheeler have a tight grip on the marker ball before being lifted into the air to install it on a static line.

Employing Long-Line Techniques

During the training session as well as in the field, the apprentices and journeymen must be fully outfitted in the proper protective apparel, which includes bare-hand suits, flight harnesses, hard hats, gloves and eye protection.

Before the linemen embark on their mission, they attach a double-locking snap into their harness, which is then connected to a long line extending from the helicopter. If they are working on a steel structure, then two linemen can go at a time; but if they are working on a wood pole, then they fly by themselves to avoid any gaffing accidents.

Also, before they can perform a job, they undergo a job hazard analysis. For example, they must review the procedures, understand which workers will perform which tasks, identify the supervisor and cover any rescue techniques. They also cover how to mitigate hazards on the job site and talk to the pilot about what he or she is and isn’t comfortable doing on the job.

Once they have the proper equipment and training, the linemen can rely on helicopters to help pull fiber, string wire, or fly to and from the tower. In addition, they can save time on the project by having a helicopter pilot transport materials. For example, on a recent 85-mile job, a helicopter pilot flew the line crews from one tower to the next to install goat peaks for optical ground wire.

Western’s linemen also rely on the long-line helicopter method to change out spacers. In fact, the utility is one of the few to perform this kind of work on 500-kV lines using helicopters. As part of this work method, the pilot first flies the linemen onto the conductors, then transports their carts to their location and allows the linemen to ride the conductor to the next tower. After they change out the spacers, the helicopter picks up the cart, reloads it and then sets the spacers ahead of the crew.

Western linemen have been changing out the spacers on an energized line for the last year. In the past, the linemen had to set up their bucket truck, bond on to the conductor, ride the cart down, take the spacers off and then put them back on. They would then need to move to the next line, requiring them to ride the span twice. By using a helicopter, however, the linemen dramatically improved their efficiency from completing two spans a day to completing eight to 12 spans a day with the current work method.

Along with using the spacer carts, the linemen also rely on the air chair to perform bare-hand mid-span repairs, install regular bundled spacers and replace marker balls on river crossings. For example, on a recent project, a helicopter landed motorized carts on a line using a dielectric long line made from 0.75-inch hy-dee brait. Before using the long line, linemen tested the rope with a specialized dielectric tester to ensure its integrity.

Over the years, Western has modified the air chair to increase linemen’s efficiency. For example, the chair now has loops to allow the linemen to hang their materials and tools. Also, it now features a yoke plate to connect two chairs so a pair of linemen can travel together under the helicopter to the site location.

Another piece of equipment that has become increasingly valuable to the helicopter team is a ladder. To change out insulators, the linemen fly to their work location on fiberglass hook ladders that hang from the helicopter. The linemen are not attached to the ladder until it lands on the arm of the tower. At that point, the linemen belt off, secure it, do the work and then go to the next location.

Linemen prepare to snap in to the helicopter long line from a tower, as a Sierra Nevada lineman (inset) positions the spacer basket on the conductor while suspended below a long line.

Ensuring Safety

By using helicopters, Western has been able to safely and efficiently work in California. Because the agency serves a mountainous region, a helicopter can easily fly from one area of the California territory to another, which would be challenging, if not impossible, with traditional vehicles and heavy equipment.

To ensure that the linemen can get as close as possible to their work locations, the helicopter has a landing zone every 2 miles. Also, to ensure safety, the helicopter pilot is required to undergo a connectivity test for the voltage that the line crew is working on.

Another way that Western ensures the safety of the field crew is by always having one lineman suited up and ready to spring into action in the event of an emergency. This worker is responsible for grabbing the old spacers, putting the new spacers in a crew-designed spacer basket and then sending them with the pilot to deliver to the crew.
If one of his or her coworkers is injured, this lineman can drop everything, fly out to the location of the injured worker and perform the rescue. For added safety, all of the carts have descent equipment, which allows the crew to safely get down off the wire if necessary.

Through the long-line technique, Western linemen have been able to save labor hours, access hard-to-reach areas of California, and replace spacers and insulators. Helicopters have empowered the field crews to work efficiently without sacrificing safety in the field or mandating planned power outages.  

James Hill ([email protected]) is a lineman for Western Area Power Administration. He has been with the company for 15 years and is responsible for maintaining, repairing and troubleshooting the transmission and distribution lines for the Sierra Nevada Region. He previously worked as a lineman for the Air Force.

Editor’s note: To see video clips of the Western linemen in action, please visit the Electric Utility Operations landing page at http://tdworld.com/electric-utility-operations/linemen-learn-fly-helicopter-short-haul-style.

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