Saturday, November 03, 2012

Georgia: Helicopter crew trims power lines

 Henrick Bjorklund inspects the helicopter as Joe West, in the background, checks the saws, to make sure everything is OK to take off again.

The 10 spinning saw blades suspended from a red helicopter hovering over a tree line a couple of hundred feet in the air easily strike through the limbs and branches in their path.

Henrik Bjorklund, a Swedish pilot in the United States on a work visa, mans the copter and the 25-foot saw that goes with it, working hours each day along with ground supervisor Joe West, who performs light maintenance on all the machinery every hour or so. In the two weeks the Rotor Blade employees were in Whitfield County and surrounding areas, they’ll have cleared thousands of feet around power lines belonging to North Georgia Electric Membership Corp.

“What he can do in about an hour would take a climbing crew of eight or 10 people (including support personnel) about a week,” said Randy Skidmore, director of power supply and vegetation management for NGEMC. “Climbing is the most expensive thing we do because it takes so long.”

Bjorklund estimated the helicopter saw can clear about one mile of tree lines in an hour, depending on conditions.

The aircraft can hold up to 62.2 gallons of fuel, but because of how the fuel weight shifts in the air, it is typically filled up only to about 35 gallons, he said. The helicopter lands usually about every 45 minutes to one hour.

Bjorklund, a Florida resident, said he came to the United States about six years ago to enroll in what is now Bristow Academy for about 14 months of training. He went from having never been in a helicopter to becoming a certified instructor during that time, he said.

Bjorklund said he originally planned to stay in the U.S. for two years, but the work was good and the job offers kept coming. An employer who didn’t want to lose him sponsored a work visa, he said, and two years slowly turned into six.

For sure, the job has its downsides. Bjorklund jokes about how necessary it is to keep around important supplies to maintain the copter and himself — things like coffee and Red Bull energy drink that keep him focused during long hours in the air. Even with breaks, he said he sometimes has very little interaction with other people, especially if he’s working a job in an isolated area.

The travel perks are pretty amazing though. Bjorklund said he’s worked all over the southern half of the U.S. from coast to coast. Sometimes he works with West, sometimes with another ground supervisor. Both men work three weeks on for seven straight days, then three weeks off.

In addition to tree-trimming, they do other tasks like hanging power lines, as needed. Is the work mentally demanding?

“Yeah,” Bjorklund said. “Hence, the Red Bull.”

West lives in South Carolina and is working on obtaining his pilot’s license. Among his many jobs is finding landing zones for the helicopter and doing public relations work with people in the areas where they trim. Earlier this week, West had his pilot land in an empty yard in front of a church building off of Reed Road.

He said the helicopter and saw need a plot of several dozen feet to land. The saw blades are attached to the helicopter by an 80-foot pole constructed of 3-inch aluminum pipe with a safety cable in the center. When the pilot works close to roads or other areas where people are present, West works to maintain a safe distance between them and the saw blades.

Skidmore said this is the third year the power company has used a chopper crew to trim trees. He said the trimming should last for several years.

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