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Helicopters help crews keep power flowing

Having electrical power restored after a storm in a matter of hours instead of days can make a huge difference to customers eager to see the lights come back on so they can get back to life as normal.

Before and after a major storm like the recent Hurricane Lili you can see vast convoys of utility trucks from throughout the region converging on the state to help with storm cleanup. But what you don’t see on the highway is the “secret weapon” of utilities like Entergy Mississippi. Helicopter maintenance and repairs crews play a vital role in quickly correcting problems to keep the electric grid humming.

During Hurricane Lili a helicopter survey crew was able to quickly locate and help repair critical transmission line infrastructure. The helicopter crew found one tree blown onto the transmission line.

“Working with Entergy we were able to get that line back in service within 40 minutes,” said Tom McShane, president, Air2, a Maryland company that does a lot of contract work for Entergy in Mississippi and Louisiana. “That was pretty amazing. After the storm we patrolled virtually every transmission line. Within the hurricane there were several twisters that took out some transmission line structures. We got involved in working to reconstruct some of those lines.”

McShane said work is accomplished quickly due to a strong working relationship with Entergy and other contractors such as Irby Construction Co.

Air2 helicopters have a platform for crew to work off to repair lines and do other work. The ground support crew includes a helicopter mechanic, a fuel truck and maintenance trailers. The air crew includes a pilot and experienced, trained electrical linemen.

“We do a lot of inspection work patrolling the lines looking for problems,” McShane said. “Then, in many cases, because our men are trained to work on transmission lines, they can get involved and fix a problem they find right away. Other times they can notify the utility what is going on and the utility sends people to take care of the problem.”

McShane said the helicopter crew has a tremendous advantage over doing it from the ground. The helicopter is able to get to the lines without trespassing over private property located around the transmission lines, and without compacting any wetlands or disturbing sensitive plant and animal life. It is also easier and faster to locate problems.

“There is a tremendous speed advantage,” McShane said. “We can hover right next to a line or pole if we see a problem. We can slow up and look at it from all different angles to see what the problem is. Overall the ability to use the helicopter has advantages over fixed wing aircraft because we can go fast or slow. Fixed wing aircraft can only go so slow, and they can’t see the problems that we can.”

The greatest advantage of the helicopter survey and repair crews is that it results in less downtown after a power outage and increased reliability for the entire transmission line.

Weather is the number one problem affecting power transmission lines. Vandalism and gunshot damage are occasional concerns, and birds can be a bother, as well. Bird nests or dropping can interrupt the power supply. Air2 helicopters are equipped with a high-pressure power washer that can be used to spray off the bird dropping. Then a platform is mounted over the tops of the insulators to protect the equipment after the birds return.

While it might look dangerous seeing a power line being repaired from a helicopter, Air2 has a very comprehensive safety training program.

“We live and breathe safety every minute of every day,” McShane said. “We have a very comprehensive safety program and training for our men and for our operations. Entergy is a very safety conscious utility, and we work closely to make sure we are complying with their very rigorous safety standards.”

Another helicopter company that does work for Entergy and other utilities is Aerial Solutions Inc., which is based in Wilmington, N.C. Aerial Solutions provides right-of-way maintenance service. A saw with 11 two-foot diameter saw blades hangs down 110 feet below the helicopter. Basically this is a giant hedge trimmer attached to a helicopter used to edge along the right of way.

“I don’t think there is a more efficient way to maintain the right-of-way,” says

William Cox, owner of Aerial Solutions Inc. “The harder the terrain, the more efficient we are. The helicopter doesn’t care if it is over a swamp, and mountains or fences don’t slow us down. We’re able to get a lot done more efficiently that way.”

Cox said the work is actually much safer than if tree pruners had to climb individual trees to trim them away from the right of way.

“It is a lot safer than a man hanging up in the tree trimming it,” Cox said. “Most ground equipment can’t reach all the way to the top of tall trees. Plus, having someone climb the trees is very, very expensive.”

Aerial Solutions puts a big emphasis on safety. In 18 years operating for 75,000 hours, the company has had no injuries.

Efficiency is also a big issue. The flying buzz saw does the job very quickly. And the way the trees are pruned, they are less likely to fall towards the transmission lines during a storm.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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