The closest most folks will come to any helicopter action? Power-watching Die Hard, hopping on an aerial tour of Hawaii, or sightseeing over the Hoover Dam.
But for helicopter linemen, a unique breed of utility contractor, every day is like a scene from Mission Impossible—but with much stricter safety protocols. An average day entails working upwards of 150 feet off the ground to fix and maintain towers and transmission lines. It’s an extremely tough and dangerous job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
To get the lowdown on this gripping trade, we caught up with two helicopter linemen: Richard from HeliService Powerline Solutions and Sean from IBEW Local 104 (Par Electric).
A Day In The Life
Richard works as a lineman for HeliService Powerline Solutions, a small company based out of Florida. They handle just about everything that involves a helicopter and a power line: maintenance, construction, fiber optic work—you name it. For Richard, every day’s different. One day could be spent meeting with the power company and renovating contractor, and the next banging out power safety measures. Before he suits up and takes off? There are lots of procedural elements to check off the list.
Sean works for IBEW Local 104 with Par Electric. He does skid and long-line work, whether it’s handling fiber optics, static lines, or conductors. He’s a foreman on a “bare-hand” crew that works on energized transmission conductors. Sean usually gets a call a month or so in advance, and travels all across America to tackle job after job.
From harsh weather to live wires, the work of a helicopter lineman is fraught with danger. How do Sean and Richard stay safe? Taking care of their own, following procedures to a T, and sticking together.
Do you rely a lot on your pilot to keep your crew safe?
Richard: The whole job is a big team effort, and we know every move we’re going to make before we leave the ground. Sure, we count on our pilot. But it’s just as much our job to keep him safe. There’s so much he can’t see. And what you can’t see? That’s what’ll get ya. A lot of times, we relay information back to the pilot. The maintenance on the helicopter is another thing: our maintenance program beats anyone in the industry.
What could go wrong out there? What are the top safety concerns?
Sean: Well, a lot could go wrong. A worker’s equipment could break the minimum approach distance between two phases that are being conducted at the same time, between the phase they’re working on in an energized manner, or a ground—whether it’s a transmission tower, a wood pole, or another bucket in a non-energized section. You also need to watch out for cranes. If the helicopter is bringing tools and equipment to us linemen, we need to watch out for that too. Everything’s taken into account: whatever’s coming in or leaving work areas. There are so many moving parts, and you’re constantly thinking about the next move you’ll make. Everyone keeps an eye out for each other.
What dangerous situations have you worked through? How do you stay safe?
Richard: Wind and weather is a big issue. If the wind’s blowing on the helicopter’s tail rudder, we need to adjust and change up what we’re doing. We run real tight clearances when we’re doing skid work. Sometimes, we’ll be just three foot off the wire. So it can get pretty sketchy out there.
When in doubt, we fall back on the basic training we’ve had over the years of coming up in the trades. In the air, we use the same basic safety principles used on the ground. Although, the helicopter changes a lot of the specifics. Before we take off, we know exactly what we’ll be doing, and everyone gets on the same page.
Everything has a procedure to it, and we don’t deviate much from that—that keeps everybody safe. There’s a certain level of brotherhood in this line of work. Everything has to be perfect, and there’s zero room for error.
Note From Todd:
Beyond sticking to safety procedures and having each other’s backs, solid training from the Electrical Training Alliance is critical. Helicopter linemen learn a ton on the job, but a strong foundation of knowledge never hurts. Just like any other electrical contractor, helicopter linemen can benefit from the Electrical Training Alliance’s vast range of learning resources.
For the right person, a career as a helicopter lineman is an exciting and lucrative one. Our linemen weighed in with their thoughts on where this trade is headed.
For young folks, what opportunities exist in this line of work?
Richard: In my opinion, this generation coming up is too concerned with how much money they’ll make right off the bat. When you love what you do? The money comes easy. But you’ve gotta put the effort and dedication in. Having said that, there’s a ton of work in this trade right now. We have more work than we know what to do with.
Sean: This trade is highly selective, but not difficult. Lots of people are interested in the job, and they have a lot of questions, but not a lot of commitment. You need to be dedicated to the learning process, and you have to be comfortable with uncertainty. We don’t always know how long our next job will be, and where.
But for the right person, there are tons of opportunities in this trade. It seems like there’s more work now than when I first started. I’m getting offers constantly, and it’s nice to be able to turn down jobs when I’m too busy.
Over To You
As National Market Manager at Graybar, Todd’s goal is to find the best products and solutions to help contractors work more efficiently, stay safe on the job, and win more productive and profitable business.
Sources & Credits
High Flying Linemen: IBEW International (YouTube Video)