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Pilot’s Skill Key To Trimming Trees From The Air

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By ED WATERS Jr.
The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — What do you do when trees threaten large power lines in areas where it may be impossible to get traditional equipment?

In the battle of vegetation versus power transmission, FirstEnergy calls in air support.

On Thursday, T.J. Van Dyke, a pilot with Haverfield Aviation, flew a McDonnell Douglas 500 helicopter equipped with 800 pounds of sawing attachments around Gambrill State Park to trim trees encroaching on a power line.

The pilot’s skill is key, said Charles Brewer, supervisor, transmission vegetation management for FirstEnergy.

“The 500 is the workhorse sports car of helicopters,” Brewer said in an interview at one of the park’s picnic areas where the helicopter’s work could be observed.

Van Dyke and other pilots who do similar work must constantly look down to do the trimming. The pilot must pitch and yaw (move the aircraft left, right, sway it while in flight) to move the saws into place to cut trees vertically.

Van Dyke said he has worked when tree trimmers were on platforms beneath the aircraft and even lowered tree trimmers in harnesses on ropes to trim trees.

Much of the work Thursday was done on private land around the park, Brewer said. Residents were notified and safety was paramount, making sure no one was in the areas where the tree limbs would fall.

Brewer said areas are scheduled for aerial trimming about every four years, though ground maintenance crews keep rights of way clear on a consistent basis.

Roger Johnsonbaugh, head of operations for Haverfield Aviation, based in Gettysburg, Pa., said the company uses 35 pilots and has 24 helicopters.

Van Dyke, who has a tile and flooring company in Jacksonville, Ore., works on a regular basis for Haverfield and travels around the country when a pilot is needed.

“There are only a small number of pilots who can do this,” Brewer said. “It takes special training and skill.”

Van Dyke said he hadn’t considered a career as a pilot until seven years ago when he heard an ad on the radio in Oregon about helicopter pilot training. He has been with Haverfield for more than a year.

“The pilots have to concentrate so much on the trimming, we have to contact them at regular times to check on their fuel remaining,” Johnsonbaugh said.

When landing, Van Dyke drops the saw system first, which consists of nearly a dozen saw blades and the motor; then a 75-foot folding metal tube that holds the saw complex, then backs up to land the aircraft. The motor for the saws in this case was a gas-fed motor one might find in a lawn tractor, Van Dyke said.

“We do what is cost-effective,” Brewer said.

In some cases, ground crews can trim trees, but only to a certain height, but will mark those to be cut by air as well.

“The ground crew can work in bad weather. The helicopter is environmentally safe. We are not leaving tracks of heavy equipment,” Brewer said.

The helicopter does not trim all the way to the ground, but at most about 15 feet from the ground. When moving to another location, the saw system is removed from the helicopter in about 30 to 40 minutes, Johnsonbaugh said. It takes a similar length of time to reattach it.

The 230,000-volt line through the park runs from the Doubs power substation near Point of Rocks to the Monocacy power substation in Frederick.

“This line isn’t going into any homes, but from substation to substation,” Brewer said. “It is serving hundreds of thousands of customers.”

Ground crews cleared about four acres of vegetation in the rights of way in and around the park earlier, Brewer said. Trees are the No. 1 cause of power line problems.

With the possibility of inclement weather through the weekend, the FirstEnergy crew said Thursday was the best day to get the trimming work done.
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Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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