Utility inspectors ride the skies to keep your electricity flowing
This is a story about how some modern cowboys help keep your lights on.
But I can’t help telling about me, too.
When East Kentucky Power Cooperative asked me to write about how they “fly the lines” to keep them free of trees and other hazards, I said OK—as long as I got a helicopter ride out of the deal.
Somehow in my years writing and reporting I had missed out on flying in a helicopter. I grabbed my chance.
Let’s get the business out of the way first.
East Kentucky Co-op invited me along for its own reasons. Three times a year the utility takes 16 days to patrol the 2,800 miles of transmission line it uses to deliver the electricity it generates to 16 of the state’s 24 local electric distribution co-ops. (Other utilities schedule similar inspections, including Big Rivers Electric co-op based in Henderson and TVA, which together generate and transmit electricity to the other eight distribution co-ops in the state.)
East Kentucky wants Kentucky Living readers to know that the land around power lines must stay clear. Anyone who remembers last year’s ice storm knows how trees near power lines can leave you in the cold and dark. Plus, legal agreements require that the right-of-way paths that buffer power lines from outside influences be kept free of obstructions.
And East Kentucky wants you to know the helicopter that might occasionally whirr overhead is part of a well-thought-out plan to make sure all of us have the electricity we want and need.
So I get to go up in a helicopter.
I meet Jeff Randolph and Glynn Tucker at sunup by the helicopter perched behind East Kentucky’s Winchester headquarters. Randolph works as right-of-way specialist for East Kentucky and Tucker, a Lexington pilot with Morning Star Aviation, will drive today. They pull out a map and trace today’s route for me—north to Maysville, then west toward northern Kentucky before heading back.
I climb in the back seat of the small cab. We strap ourselves in and fit headphones over our ears. As the blades outside start spinning, it’s obvious the only way we’ll be able to talk to each other will be through our microphone and speaker headsets. I scribble this profound observation in my notepad, then look outside and see we’re already 10 feet from the ground. I didn’t even feel the liftoff.
We approach a row of transmission poles that look like a parade of pairs of crosses holding hands, marching to the horizon. The helicopter seems to latch onto the 100-foot-wide pathway with the wooden towers running down the center. Flying 20 to 30 feet above the poles, following the up-down contour of the green countryside, feels exactly like a trip in an amusement park gondola or up a mountainside ski lift.
Tucker calls over the headphone radio, “I don’t want to scare you, but we’re flying in what’s called ‘The Dead-Man’s Zone.’” He explains something about having less reaction time if the engine quits while you’re traveling slower than 60 knots (that’s about 70 miles per hour) and lower than 500 feet.
The Dead-Man’s Zone. Oh, I’m bad.
Not that bad. Before we took off, Tucker and Randolph removed the doors next to their seats. The day promised pleasant and clear weather, and “you can see so much better with the doors open,” says Tucker. The two up front occasionally lean their head out of the cab and snap photos of damaged poles and overgrown areas that need to be sprayed. We pass near a school where children at recess wave. Randolph waves back. I keep my hands inside.
We fly forward, hugging the lines like a train traveling a few feet above its tracks. Tucker and Randolph consult on what they see. Randolph fills in a form, noting overgrown areas that need respraying, broken insulators, poles that need checking, and woodpecker holes.
“That middle pole’s eaten out pretty good,” I hear in my headphones. “You can see all the way through.”
The helicopter peels from the line and circles back for a closer look, hovering where you can indeed see all the way through the hole at the top of the pole.
“They’ll probably have to change that one out,” says Randolph, filling in another box in the form. There’s a special column on his form just for noting woodpecker holes.
A numbered sign identifies each pole, and the two fliers in front exchange observations over the headphones as the lines roll by underneath.
“We need signs there.”
“Pine tree planted under the lines.”
“Vines on pole.”
“WPH.” (That’s how they say woodpecker hole.)
“Crossarm’s started to crack on number 168.”
“May need spraying.”
Now here’s the really cool part. My watch winds toward noon as we near Maysville.
“Where do you want to eat?” asks Tucker.
I hadn’t thought about how we’d accomplish that part of the day. I look left, then right, at the toy town spread out below. I point and say to the mike, “There’s a Tumbleweed.”
Not only that, the restaurant sits handily next to a vacant lot. After the blades stop spinning, I walk with the pair as nonchalantly as I can and ask for a table for three. I notice a family glancing back and forth at us and the flying machine parked outside the window. I imagine I now know how Jesse James felt tying up his horse and entering a saloon.
Two enchiladas later I watch our tiny, tadpole-shaped shadow on the ground follow us along the rights-of-way. As we approach a handful of cattle hanging out under the lines, the helicopter shifts higher in the sky. Cows gallop ahead of us for maybe 50 feet, then stop and lower their heads again as we pass. Meanwhile, cows 100 feet farther away just stand and watch us float by.
The reactions of cows and people below never seem to leave the minds of Randolph and Tucker. It’s part of the reason they wanted me along on this trip, to explain the value of what they do, and the care they take in doing it.
“We don’t intentionally scare horses and cows. I try to look ahead for animals that might get spooked,” says Tucker. “I fly high over horse farms or cattle in feedlots, or ostriches and emus. We’ve got a property owner over there with horses who doesn’t like us to fly over his land. So we try to avoid that.
“This old boy over here, he’s called in to tell us if we see horses on his land, stay high.”
Randolph explains that besides flying the lines, crews do walking inspections as well. About one-fourth of the system gets inspected from the ground each year. That’s slow going, though. A four-worker crew covers 5-10 miles a day, inspecting 60-100 poles in that distance. The aerial surveys also have the advantage of being able to check the tops of the poles.
“There’s a whole lot more to this job than just a joy ride. It has to be done,” says Tucker. “But it sure beats sitting behind a desk.”
RIGHT OF WAY RULES
The strip of land bordering each side of rows of electric transmission lines is called a right-of-way. Maintaining that 75- to 200-foot-wide strip plays a key part in protecting the lines and poles that deliver your electricity. Rights-of-way are governed by easements that give the utility special rights to that land. Here are some of the right-of-way rules worth knowing, to keep you safe and help the utility keep your lights on.
- The right-of-way must stay free of trees, buildings, and other structures such as swimming pools or signs.
- No fires allowed.
- Utilities must be able to get to the poles by truck—no plants, fences, or other structures can block that access.
- Utilities have the right to keep the right-of-way clear of vegetation, and may use chemicals to control growth.
- Never try to remove a tree growing along the right-of-way that could possibly come in contact with the line.
- Utilities try to be reasonable in considering special needs of land-owners, as long as the requests don’t make it harder to maintain the lines. Contact your local electric co-op if you have a question about use of a right-of-way.