Linemen relish the thrill of live-line work, which often includes scaling structures and hovering from helicopters.
As helicopter blades spin dangerously close to live power lines, linemen for Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) stand on a custom platform mounted to the bottom of the helicopter. Wearing metal mesh suits, the linemen prepare to inspect and repair transmission lines.
For the last seven years, Art Smith Jr., a chief live-line coordinator for PSE&G, has performed live-line work using helicopters. For many linemen like Smith, scaling monstrous transmission towers or flying in helicopters far above the ground is just part of the job. On a daily basis, they entrust their lives to coworkers, personal protective equipment and fall-arrest systems. Over time, their fear of heights dissipates and they enjoy the thrill of working in the air.
NV Energy foreman Shannon Skinner, for example, has scaled tall transmission towers and set poles using helicopters. For her, working in the air is one of the best parts of working as a lineman. “I tell my apprentices that when they need to climb a 108-ft pole, it's like their sidewalk to work,” she said.
No matter how skilled linemen are at scaling structures, all of them remember the first time they ever soared above the clouds. With 41 years in the trade, Smith has seen his share of extreme heights, but the first time he climbed onto the platform and soared above the trees, he had butterflies in his stomach. Now as he ascends 1000 ft to 1500 ft up in the air, he enjoys the beautiful views of New Jersey as he travels to job sites.
“We have a great pilot with us and he has kept us safe for the past seven years,” Smith said. “We have no fear because we are at heights all the time.”
For Manuel “Ernie” Dominguez, a senior patrolman for Southern California Edison, he will never forget when he climbed a 250-ft double-circuit tower near a steel mill.
“I went up with my brother, and he played games with me so I could think about something else,” Dominguez said. “If you focus on your work, then you're not worried about the elevation. It's still on your mind, but it's not your primary concern.”
Now many years later, Dominguez often climbs transmission towers measuring 150 ft to 200 ft without even thinking about the heights. Case in point: When he worked hundreds of feet up in the air for a recent job, all he could think about was how dirty the insulators were.
Kevin Kelley, a senior line electrician for Tacoma Power, said all linemen are born with certain comfort levels when it comes to heights. Years ago, he scaled his first 100-ft structure, and within a few minutes, he did not even realize how high off the ground he was. Instead, he was focusing on the difference between climbing a tower versus a wood pole. Now he climbs the highest towers in his utility's territory, which span between 400 ft and 450 ft tall.
After years in the trade, veteran linemen often look forward to dangling from a helicopter or working from a spacer cart. For example, Doug Mann, a lead lineman for NV Energy, said he enjoys the element of danger that comes with working at high elevations.
“There is that fear factor that you have when you're climbing, and you can embrace it or you can fall away from it,” he said. “If you're walking across the bridge of a 500-kV tower, and you're 150 ft in the air, there's nothing between you and the deck but a 3-inch piece of steel. There is no other feeling like that.”
For Dominguez, working with a helicopter is just plain fun. His team is now training to do line work from a helicopter, and so far, he has learned how to go from the ground to a truck, and then from the truck to the ground. He equates the experience of hanging under a helicopter to that of riding a motorcycle backward.
“When you're hanging below the helicopter, the wind is hitting you from behind,” he said. “You can control the way you turn while the helicopter is hovering. If you are flying the normal way, you can look back to where you've been, but you can also fly backward, and that is way cool.”
In addition to experiencing a rush of adrenaline, linemen also enjoy working at high elevations to see the world from a bird's-eye view. When Kelley works on Tacoma Power's tallest towers, he can see mountains hundreds of miles away.
To get this breathtaking view from the top of the tower, however, he and his crew have to climb for about 15 to 20 minutes. On one project, they scaled to the top of the tower and then worked for the next 16 hours straight, relying on radio communications to stay in touch with crew members on the ground. While his crew was challenged with long days, he said the camaraderie is even better on top of a tower than down on the ground.
“We were having a great time, because we had a fun job to do with an awesome view and nothing to interrupt us from doing it,” he said. “Since we were up that high, we took minimal breaks. We had everything we needed with us, and so we just continued working.”
Hardworking linemen often have to put in long hours when working at elevations, but they also get another perk — they get to observe wildlife in their natural habitat. For example, when he works with a helicopter and travels 1500 ft in the air to a job site, Smith often spots bears, deer, foxes, eagles and turkeys. By flying in a helicopter, he has gained a new appreciation for the beauty of New Jersey. While he says people often get a bad impression when they fly into the Newark airport, he gets a completely different view when he sees the state from a helicopter platform.
“As you get into the helicopter and travel to the job site, the view is just beautiful,” Smith said. “There's so much open land, and you get to see parts of the state that you may never have gotten to see before.”
By flying under a helicopter, linemen not only are able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife, but they are also exposed to the elements. When Smith is coming back from a job and it starts to rain, he says the raindrops pelting down on his skin feel like bee stings.
Often, however, linemen try to avoid flying in inclement weather, and they stay safe through tailboard discussions and constant communication with a crew member stationed on the ground.
“We want to have as many takeoffs as we do landings,” said Smith. “We all want to go home alive.”
Spotlight on Safety
When linemen work at high elevations, they must always be aware of their surroundings, work one step ahead and make sure they have solid footing, Dominguez said. Otherwise, it could make the difference between going home or making a trip to the emergency room at the end of a long workday.
Kelley said when he and his coworkers are working on Tacoma Power's tallest towers, they always tie a string from their belts to their tools. That way, a tool cannot accidentally drop on top of a crew member working at a lower elevation. One time, he recalls, one of his fellow linemen pulled out his cell phone to snap a photo and it slipped out of his hand. A minute later, it hit the water with a splash.
In addition to tethering their tools, linemen need to make sure they have adequate fall protection, whether they are working from a helicopter or a tall tower. When Dominguez works from a helicopter, he is protected by redundant engines and ropes. That way, if one engine fails, another one is in reserve, and if one rope malfunctions, another rope is holding the lineman.
Smith of PSE&G said when he performs aerial live-line work, he and the other linemen are attached to the helicopter at three different points. The linemen all have a D ring on the back of their belts that is attached to the helicopter, safety swing and platform. That way, when the helicopter turns sideways, the linemen will not drop down to the ground.
In addition to wearing harnesses, the linemen don metal mesh suits, called Faraday suits, to protect them from electrocution. These jumpsuits work using the Faraday principle of allowing electricity to flow around the suit instead of through it and the person inside.
The Faraday cage keeps the lineman at the same potential as the line conductor. As the helicopter flies in close proximity to the energized line, the lineman uses a bonding wand to pick up the static charge of the current. The lineman then transfers it from the outer structure of the helicopter so he or she, the pilot and the aircraft are all energized at the same potential, which ranges between 138,000 V to 500,000 V.
Since even a small amount of current flow can be lethal to a lineman, PSE&G developed a busbar. This bar is folded into the helicopter, which features an aluminum floor. Everything is energized at the same potential, so there is no risk of electrocution while the linemen are working on the energized lines from the helicopter platform.
“We don't feel the current flowing around us, but we can sometimes feel static electricity on the back of our neck or back,” said Smith.
By relying on helicopters for aerial live-line work, the PSE&G linemen are able to get to the job site quickly, save time and money for the utility, and increase efficiency tenfold, Smith said.
Through continued training and years of experience, linemen from PSE&G and utilities nationwide are learning how to feel comfortable soaring above the clouds, whether standing on a helicopter platform or climbing a tower.
Smith described it this way: “To be a towerman, you have to have it within you. If you don't, then you're in the wrong trade.”