When you think of the work the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) does every day to accomplish its mission, you may picture a team of linemen upgrading and installing transmission lines. You also may picture the dams that contribute to the clean, renewable energy WAPA offers to customers.
You might not picture helicopters, but their roles in WAPA’s day-to-day operations are both crucial and innovative. They provide a unique perspective and approach to WAPA’s projects.
WAPA’s aviation program is directly aligned with its Strategic Roadmap 2024, incorporating business, operational and organizational excellence, and is a prime example of how it uses innovation and technology in the workplace.
“A helicopter is not the tool for every job, but when you’re touching every structure along a great distance, it is a no-brainer,” says Ed Hunt, a foreman III lineman. “We just hook up a guy, drop him where he needs to be, and he gets right to work.”
Helicopters are valuable tools for WAPA because their speed, maneuverability and ability to hover in place help field employees accomplish their tasks more quickly, easily and efficiently. For example, helicopters enable employees to inspect structures and their components with a bird’s-eye view, and transport maintenance crews with impressive speed.
WAPA began using the human external cargo (HEC) method, which transfers linemen from one structure to the next via helicopter, when crews in WAPA’s Sierra Nevada region researched alternatives to conducting work in nearly inaccessible areas. Lineman Johnathan Zub says the work method gives WAPA a leg up, helps to save time and money, and allows the linemen to access hard-to-reach places.
For the last five years, linemen have been using a longline method to transition linemen to, from and between towers, says James Hill, a lineman. “It took a long time to get there,” Hill says. “WAPA’s Sierra Nevada region began using longline maintenance more than 10 years ago, starting with flying material and tools to the linemen on structures.”
High Standards for High Flying
Extensive training is crucial for a job in which any number of hazards can present themselves immediately and without warning. This is why WAPA’s pilots have extensive personal flight-hour requirements that rival the airline industry.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires passenger and cargo pilots to have at least 1500 hours of experience. By comparison, WAPA requires 3000 hours at minimum, with 1000 of those hours being as pilot in command, the person ultimately responsible for an aircraft’s operation and safety during flight.
“I joined WAPA with over 13,000 hours as a dual-rated airplane and helicopter pilot,” says Todd Slade, a helicopter pilot. “I came from Flight for Life Colorado, a critical care transport service, where I performed back-country rescues on Colorado’s fourteeners. I have 30 years of experience of flying, just counting Colorado.”
In the interest of preventing failures and ensuring safe practices, WAPA has contracted with the same qualified and experienced maintenance staff for 25 years. Each member of this staff is factory trained and is required to maintain current knowledge of the equipment.
Reaching New Heights
As helicopter work picked up around WAPA, the decision was made to certify a WAPA pilot in HEC. To quality in HEC, pilots are required to hover with a dummy attached to a longline over five points painted on the ground. The pilot must hover with the dummy 2 ft off the ground for two minutes in a center marker, then move and maintain the hover for one minute over each point.
During the qualification, crews are not only assessing how the pilots are performing during the training, but their confidence in the pilot himself and his ability to maneuver the helicopter from point to point.
WAPA’s aviation program reached a new milestone in the spring, certifying its first federal pilot in HEC. Helicopter pilot Rory Kirkendall completed his HEC certification on May 11 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is not the first go-round for Kirkendall. He began doing longline work in 2010 and completed his first HEC lift in 2013. This training was his first time completing HEC in a WAPA helicopter.
“I went to flight school right out of high school,” Kirkendall says. “This is what I love to do.”
For the past several years, WAPA has been using contracted helicopters to complete HEC work. HEC work saves wear and tear, completes jobs faster and reduces environmental impact as compared to work that does not involve helicopter use. HEC also increases the speed at which crews can perform maintenance and repairs.
With the multiple advantages of using HEC, though, one downside existed: contracting qualified pilots and helicopters through an outside vendor could be time consuming.
“Having a helicopter pilot who can do this in-house gives us a lot more flexibility,” Hunt says. “You wouldn’t be able to get a contract pilot within a week.”
With an in-house pilot certified in HEC, WAPA is now self-sufficient on any helicopter job at a moment’s notice and no longer has to wait for a contract pilot or to work through procurement to get jobs set up, says Ron Burbridge, a foreman III lineman.
With WAPA’s first in-house pilot certified in HEC, crews completed their first job with Kirkendall on Aug. 7. After two full years of planning, more than 50 linemen installed approximately 50 miles of fiber-optic cable outside of Casper, Wyoming, to connect WAPA substations for instant communication.
The sloped terrain and long distance meant that using a helicopter would allow crews to complete the work more quickly and easily than traditional methods. Hunt estimated that using a helicopter required about half of the money to get the same amount of work done.
“On this HEC job, our longest day saw the helicopter in the air for about seven hours total, and we were able to install the fiber-optic cable on around 80 structures in that time,” Hunt says. “The same amount of work without the helicopter would have required eight to 10 bucket trucks, and it would have easily been a 12-hour day.”
During this job, Kirkendall would pick up a lineman and drop him off on the first structure, pick up the next and drop him on the second, continuing on for a total of four structures.
“We hooked the 60-ft longline onto the helicopter and attached the lineman with a swivel and an A-frame,” Kirkendall says. “He rides on that as I fly him to the structure.”
Once the first lineman finished his work, Kirkendall would pick him up and bring him to the fifth structure, continuing the process with each subsequent lineman. Performing the work in this way allowed crews to complete the installation without having to waste time climbing up, descending from and driving to each structure.
Kirkendall is glad to be a part of the process. “This type of flying is the best,” he says. “It is my favorite because we are getting work done, and that’s what I love doing.”
WAPA values the unique opportunities for speed, efficiency and flexibility that pilots bring to the organization. From HEC, inspection and repairs to surveys and security patrols, WAPA’s pilots and their helicopters perform critical functions assisting managers, crews and craftsmen with maintenance and oversight of the entire infrastructure, often at a moment’s notice.
“Continuously improving, becoming more efficient and innovating is imperative in our industry,” says Mark A. Gabriel, administrator and CEO. “WAPA’s aviation program is crucial to our mission as we continue to serve communities across the West.”
Travis Weger is a public affairs specialist for Western Area Power Administration, a power marketing agency within the Department of Energy. WAPA markets and transmits wholesale electricity across 15 states with over 17,000 miles of transmission line. ♦
Sidebar: What Is a Burb-o-Lifter?
On a recent HEC job in Casper, Wyoming, WAPA’s linemen used a special tool called a Burb-o-Lifter to raise and hold the static wires on each structure in place while installing the fiber-optic cable. Foreman III lineman Ron Burbridge and civil engineer Cody Neyens invented the device, which is designed to prevent injuries.
By allowing a static wire to be disconnected under tension and lifted, linemen can more easily replace hardware. The Burb-o-Lifter raises the static wire without requiring linemen to do so manually with their shoulders. The invention won WAPA’s Technology and Innovation Award in May 2016.