Keeping the Lights On
By Jen Boyer
Every day the world’s power companies rely on helicopters to ensure power reaches their customers. An intricate network of poles and towers, insulators, fuses, transformers, and various voltage power lines — all subject to the elements, nearby vegetation, and extreme weather — require constant attention to keep the electrical current flowing. Often, helicopters offer the most effective, cost-saving solution.
“People don’t realize when they flip that switch, there is a lot of infrastructure out there to make sure the light turns on,” says Dan Arenson, chief pilot at Haverfield Aviation, a utility helicopter operator with more than 35 years of experience providing aerial transmission services. “Vibrations, wind, weather, vegetation — it is all continuously wearing out the infrastructure. It is a constant battle to keep everything updated.”
A pioneer in aerial transmission service to the utility industry, Haverfield is credited with revolutionizing power services by demonstrating how helicopters can efficiently support the transmission grid. Today, the company offers a comprehensive suite of end-to-end aerial services focused on transmission structures and overhead lines with voltages ranging from 69 kV to 765 kV.
With its fleet of 23 MD 500s, a UH-1H, and a UH-60 Black Hawk, Haverfield provides visual inspections, construction support, maintenance, aerial tree trimming, and long-line and live optical ground-wire installations.
In addition to helicopter pilots and crews, Haverfield employs utility experts and equipment able to perform an entire utility construction or repair project, from aerial linemen and ground crews to fuel trucks, rigging, aerial saws, generators, pumps, and presses.
“We’re not your average helicopter utility company,” Arenson says. “We provide the full service and project management. If a utility calls and needs 10,000 insulators replaced on high-voltage towers, we can do all the work, not just fly.”
As infrastructure ages, neighborhoods expand their power requirements, and vegetation grows, there is always work to perform to keep the electrical system up and running. Helicopters provide the ability to quickly assess hundreds of miles of transmission line from the air, as well as replace line and other infrastructure while lines are still live.
“We’re not grounded, so the company doesn’t lose money turning off power while we work from the air,” Arenson explains. “We can also insert linemen on a live line.”
With so much infrastructure in heavily wooded, steep terrain, helicopters’ ability to cross hard-to-access locations adds value by reducing the cost of clearing land and bringing in ground crews, Arenson adds.
Haverfield also supports vegetation control. With its aerial saw, the company can quickly access remote and hazardous terrain, cutting branches and vegetation clear of transmission lines.
“Vegetation is always growing and is a continual threat,” Arenson says. “The big blackout in New York in August 2003 was caused by an overgrown tree that hit the power line. Once the line went down, a series of switching issues took place, basically snowballing in a time of high power demand and causing the blackout. Vegetation is one of the largest causes of power loss, especially in storms.”
Through its daily work and experience with utilities across the United States, Haverfield can come in at a moment’s notice to assist in post-disaster situations that adversely affect power supplies.
“When a power company loses the ability to get electricity to its customers, it’s losing money,” Arenson explains. “Whether with their own insurance or federal funds if they’re involved, they’ll move quick to request help in getting power back online. Sometimes that means they’re asking us to fly down in advance, out of the path of a storm, and stand by to jump in as soon as the storm passes.”
This was the case for Haverfield when Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September. Haverfield flew a helicopter to Tallahassee to position for post-storm work. Once the hurricane passed, Haverfield repositioned to Leesburg, northwest of Orlando, to begin flying assessment work for Duke Energy.
“Typically, we’re initially asked to fly the lines, looking for downed lines and assessing their accessibility,” Arenson says. “More than anything, about 90 percent of the time, the cause is downed trees that brought down a power line, and most of them are the shorter, low-voltage lines that are easily accessed by ground crews for repair.
“We will sometimes find downed lines in areas hard to access by trucks and ground crews, such as over rivers and high ravines, or where the whole base is washed out by flooding. In those cases, we’ll assist with repair,” he says. “In the case of Irma, we only flew assessment. The main thing is to get the power back up, and we help by quickly identifying where the damage is so the repair work can start.”
Arenson explained it is rare to have the taller, higher voltage power lines severely damaged in hurricanes as they’re higher off the ground and not as susceptible to downed trees. However, it does happen.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, Haverfield flew down to support American Electric Power, performing long-line work, flying in wooden and metal poles to rebuild transmission lines.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Haverfield flew a great deal of assessment and rebuilding work for National Grid in New York, Arenson says. The company flew patrols, pulled sock line (using helicopters to pull electricity-conducting wires into place on a tower), and replaced insulators.
“Helicopters are not just important to the power grid in storms, they’re important year-round,” Arenson says. “A lot of utilities see the value of having helicopters to support their systems. They’re a great value for assessing and maintaining, and can get work done faster, especially in critical times after a disaster. Helicopters play a big part in keeping the electrical grid working and reliable.”
Jen Boyer is a 20-year journalism and public relations professional in the aviation industry, having worked for flight schools, OEMs, and operators. She also holds a rotorcraft commercial instrument license with flight instructor and instrument instructor ratings. Boyer currently runs her own public relations and communications firm and freelances regularly for aerospace companies and publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org