features A day in the life of an aerial saw pilot

Alan Stack tells us what it's like to fly a chainsaw at the end of a 120-foot long line.
Avatar for Alan Stack By Alan Stack | November 27, 2020

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 34 seconds.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on therotorbreak.com

I grew up in Cork, Ireland, in a farming and aviation family. I always enjoyed being in the outdoors and operating any piece of equipment I could get the keys to. After gaining my rotary-wing license at 18, I decided to pursue a career in the utility helicopter sector in the U.S. Little did I know, I soon would be flying the Ferrari of the skies — the MD 500D — in a highly-sought-after niche of the utility world: an aerial saw pilot. 

The speed that the saw can be flown is dictated by the species of tree it is cutting. Elm and oak require a very slow speed, while poplar and pine can be cut a bit more quickly. Kevin Burkholder Photo

This job is a year-round position — there is no busy or slow season. The 500D models we fly are like migratory birds chasing fine weather up and down the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. The 500 is the aircraft of choice due to its controllability, agility, and power-to-weight ratio. 

In the summer you can find me as far north as the Green Mountains of Vermont or around the lakes of Minnesota. As the temperatures drop, we will work our way south, completing projects as we travel through the “hollers” of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas. We race Mother Nature until we find our winter home in the swamps of Louisiana or among the pine trees of South Georgia. 

Passers-by stop to take photos of the helicopter and saw daily, and the most common question they ask is, “What do you call yourself?” I’ve been labelled an aerial arborist, a flying lumberjack, and a saw operator, but oddly enough, only rarely do people associate my work with that of a pilot.

Aerial saw work can take Stack (right) as far north as Vermont and Minnesota, right down to Louisiana or South Georgia. Kevin Burkholder Photo

An early start

So what does the average day of a saw pilot look like? On my current project trimming the Vermonter Railroad, my day starts at 5 a.m. The early bird gets the worm, and it’s no different in this line of work. 

I have coffee and breakfast in the camper, and look over the weather forecast and any surprise temporary flight restrictions. I lock up the camper, and go pre-flight the 500. The helicopter is my daily driver, and it comes back to my campground each night. I call the groundman and helicopter mechanic to ensure everybody is headed to the landing zone (LZ). I wait for sunrise and then fire up the bird. My reward for the early start is the million-dollar sunrise views on the peaceful flight to the worksite.

An excavator operator behind the aircraft moves the debris from the freshly-trimmed trees to one side. Kevin Burkholder Photo

Coming into the LZ, the saw will be waiting where I dropped it the previous evening. Unlike a regular long line, we can’t move the saw to the helicopter — so I switch to a vertical reference landing and bring the skids down with the aircraft hook located directly above the saw attachment. It can be tricky to perfect the positioning initially, meaning slight backwards and forwards corrections are needed, but after a while, you’ll land in the exact right spot each and every time. With that done, I shut down the aircraft and perform a tailboard meeting with the crew. 

The saw remains in position wherever it was placed the previous evening rather than being moved to the helicopter. Kevin Burkholder Photo

The current project consists of trimming 220 miles (350 kilometers) of railroad across the state of Vermont. I have 10 to 15 crewmembers helping me. These include the railroad supervisor, who will be ahead of me all day; my production manager, who monitors my cutting from the track and ensures we are cutting far enough back and progress is as expected; and an excavator operator behind me, who pushes brush to the side. Behind him is the brush and chipping crew. I also have a groundman to look after the saw maintenance, and a helicopter mechanic to look after the bird. 

Regardless of the project, we discuss aircraft safety and saw safety during our morning meeting. We cover possible emergencies, and I let everybody know what I expect from them in the event of an aircraft or saw malfunction. We also discuss railroad safety, our track limits, and track hazards such as old railroad ties and old track thrown in the trees. We talk about overhead hazards, too, such as communication lines, distribution lines, and transmission lines. 

The key to the saw, like every other piece of working equipment, is knowing everything about it.

As the trains are still running, communication is key — and the railroad supervisor will emphasize his authority over when to stop cutting, so that the crew has enough time to clear the tracks of brush and equipment when a train needs to pass. Once everybody knows where the closest hospital is and to drink enough water and wear personal protective equipment, it’s time to make some noise.

Stack trims the trees alongside a railroad. He prefers to complete one side with forward and aft passes before moving on to the other side (rather than only trimming forward in left-hand patterns). Kevin Burkholder Photo

Making the cut

With the crew in position and the helicopter RPM at 103 percent, I bring the 500 to a hover. I verify aircraft controllability and take one last look at temps and pressures. Then I extend my head out the left doorframe to my new home for the next hour. I slowly increase the collective, and keep a little aft pressure on the aluminum pipes. Once I’m vertical over the saw cage, I pause for a second, then raise another inch of collective, rotating the saw bolt in the cage to bring the saw up to the vertical position. I’m now 130 feet above the ground. I hold for a second and bring the wheel off the ground. I reference my door turbine outlet temperature (TOT) and torque gauges, and climb vertically out of the LZ.

Stack leans out of the window of his MD 500, keeping his primary vision ahead of the saw to look for obstructions and at the tree types. Kevin Burkholder Photo

On the way to the cutting location, I turn my saw blades aft to prevent oscillations, and switch the saw motor on to get ready to cut. When I get the green light from the production manager, I engage the throttle, feel the slight vibration of the well-balanced blades, and watch as my light bar goes to the full operating sequence of 3,750 rpm. 

I drop in for a top pass, keeping the railroad track off my left side and the saw blades facing toward the tree line. I pick references for cutting a straight line and keep my primary vision ahead of the saw. I look for obstructions and at the tree types. The name of the game is keeping the saw running, and knowing what speed to cut into trees is key to avoiding saw damage. Poplar, pine, hemlock — keep the speed; birch, ash, maple — slow down a little; elm and oak — slow way down. 

An individual flight typically lasts about an hour, and Stack can usually fly six to eight of these in a day. Kevin Burkholder Photo

The saw is always in my peripheral vision to ensure everything is as planned. I work the saw forwards for a couple hundred yards, then let it swing out gently ahead of me as I rotate my neck backward and switch my primary vision further aft and get ready for my aft pass. This is done at the same speed as the first pass, just going backward. Extra attention needs to be given to saw RPM as the blades are cutting upward and can throw debris up at the helicopter. You also need to pay special attention to the tail rotor and main rotor blades as you get lower or are cutting next to an embankment. 

If the saw is not in the trees, it’s not making money — so I like to complete each side with forward and aft passes until complete, and then move on to the other side (rather than only trimming forward in left-hand patterns). On this project, completing short spans and moving forward is key to keeping the excavator and brush crew working.

Kevin Burkholder Photo

The groundman gives me 20-minute fuel checks, and our fuel cycles last one hour. When the hour is complete, I bring the saw back to the LZ for a fuel service of the saw and helicopter. I like to keep my LZs as close as possible to the cutting area, so as we progress along the tracks, the groundman finds a new LZ every couple of miles. This can be in a farmer’s field, someone’s yard, outside a business, or along the side of the road. All we need is a flat area of grass to put the saw so the I don’t knock off the carbide blade tips, and at least another 120 feet behind it to bring down the pipes and helicopter.

A demanding job

Flying the saw is like flying no other external load. I’ve flown most, and its demands on your back and neck are like no other with the time we spend truly vertically referencing. On average, we do six to eight hours on the saw each day, but ultimately, we get as much as we feel comfortable completing.

There are a number of emergencies that can occur with the aerial saw, and each has its own response — from simply having your electrical connector getting unplugged, to having your saw fully stuck. The key to the saw, like any other piece of working equipment, is knowing everything about it.

So, when new hires come to work at my company, they start off as groundsmen — regardless of whether they are pilots with 1,500 hours, or pilots with 15,000 hours of vertical reference time. I teach them where every nut and bolt on the saw goes, how to change beams, how to replace shafts and belts, and how to diagnose engine issues and replace parts — or the whole motor, if necessary. 

Once they master this, I will check them out in the aircraft, emergency procedures, and so on. Then I’ll check them out at long lining, giving them the expected standards and goals, while moving the bar higher, the areas tighter, and the lifts and sets more difficult with each lesson. At this time, I’ll have them ride along with me on short saw cycles. Then I’ll let them practice picking up and setting down the saw, and see how they progress when trimming easier lines. Once they are comfortable and can make safe saw production, they will be set loose to run their own crews. On average, this whole process takes about a year. 

The saw days are long, and after a couple of delays during the day for trains, it’s getting close to dark. I tell my production manager it’s time to shut it down for the day. I kick off the saw at the LZ, and make the sunset trip back to the camper. It’s steak and corn for dinner. I’ve had another great day trimming trees. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I sleep well at night. 

Stack’s most recent project saw him trimming the trees running alongside the Vermonter Railroad. Kevin Burkholder Photo

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