PG&E utility crews take to skies in helicopters

February 22, 2010 5:28:08 PM PST
One group of men is taking extreme measures to keep your lights on. They are an elite team who routinely work hundreds of feet off the ground handling hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity.

Recently, there was a power line that needed to be fixed high above the ground in the hills of Orinda. Workers needed to get metal splices from the ground up to the remote tower.

"We're going to serve on something that looks like a Chinese handcuff," said lineman Wren Writtenhouse.

Helicopter linemen were strapped on to the end of 60-foot cable dangling below a helicopter. PG&E has been doing repair work this way since 2005.

"It's a pretty small group of people that do this type of work," said Senior Transmission Specialist Kenny McClure.

The power line would normally carry 230,000 volts of electricity, enough to power as many as 30,000 homes. It was turned off for the repair work and except for the helicopters buzzing overhead, customers barely knew the difference.

"The biggest impact is reducing the amount of time that the line is de-energized, especially if that line happens to be impacting customers, or customers are out of power," McClure said. "We can restore that power quicker."

PG&E has been using helicopters more frequently over the last decade. They have proven to be a vital tool for everything from monitoring the condition of the power lines to keeping them clean.

Without helicopters, making repairs on that Orinda tower would take a 6 to 10-man crew all day. It is physically demanding. Workers would have to carry their equipment and hike to the tower then climb the tower to make the repair.

"It would probably be an 8 to 10-hour day with that size of crew to do this same job, versus a four-man crew, that we're going to get it done in probably about two hours," McClure explained.

At PG&E's Livermore Training Academy, other linemen are hoping to find their place in the sky.

Instructor Pat Windschitl says, "It's safer than climbing a tower."

Each of the linemen is hand-selected for the job. They must have at least a year and half of experience before strapping in. A one-day training class is followed by weeks of monitoring.

"It's a pretty good accomplishment to get to do it," says longline trainee Cody Lester.

"It can be dangerous and that's why we want to make sure everybody's cut in and understands the procedures, and as long as we abide by our procedures in our manual, we can reduce the risk to next to nothing," Windschitl says.

Nothing is left to chance. Cables and buckles are carefully inspected. Hand signals from the lineman tell the helicopter pilot what to do.

"Once you're at the right spot, you just want to reach your arm out towards the structure and then he'll bring you in there, and then you'll safety off and disconnect from the helicopter," Windschitl explained.

It takes a special person to be able to do this work. Fear is not part of the job.

"Maybe the first time a little bit, but then you're just enjoying the view and the ride itself," Lester said. "But, not many people get to hang below a helicopter for a ride."

"The guys that like doing it, they love this type of work and the opportunities to use the helicopter. They look for those because they enjoy it," McClure says.

"We all kind of find our place and this just happens to be mine," says Writtenhouse.

The need for the sky-high linemen is increasing. With new and greener energy sources being built in more and more remote places, the need to quickly work on transmission lines has become more and more important.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.