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Launching a human external cargo (HEC) helicopter program

By Dan Megna

Published on: June 13, 2022
Estimated reading time 22 minutes, 55 seconds.

We join the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on a human external cargo (HEC) training program to find out what goes into developing this specialty operation.

Serving over four million customers throughout the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is the largest municipal water and power utility in the U.S.

At the core of its electric infrastructure is over 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) of overhead high-voltage transmission lines. These lines are suspended on more than 15,000 large steel towers — some 200 feet tall — that snake across five western states.

A Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) Airbus AS350 B3 uses a human external cargo (HEC) technique to deliver line workers to a work site. Here, it uses a “two seat” configuration of Air Rescue Systems’ (ARS’s) Air Reach Seat. All photos by Dan Megna

The lines transport electricity from over 50 generating sources, across hundreds of miles of what is often rugged and desolate terrain. The electricity is then routed through receiving and distribution stations, where the voltage is stepped down before being sent out to customers on the electric grid.

The integrity of this transmission network is the responsibility of a cadre of line workers, or line patrol mechanics. These workers perform maintenance, capital improvements and system upgrades working high up on the steel-lattice towers.

LADWP operates two Airbus AS350 B3s and two Bell 407s from the Hokinson Heliport in Selma, a somewhat secluded facility in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

Despite statistics indicating the significant risks faced by electrical utility workers, up until just a few years ago, it was routine for crews to free climb these towers to go to work.

As far back as the 1960s, LADWP has used helicopters for two primary missions: patrol flights along the transmission thoroughfares, and support for utility workers in the field (for which it flies tools and equipment as external loads).

Other utility operators fly similar missions, but many also use human external cargo (HEC). Using this method, utility workers are suspended below the aircraft on a special short-haul line. This enables them to be swiftly and efficiently picked up, transported, and precisely delivered to otherwise hard-to-reach places like transmission towers. The method increases productivity and reduces worker fatigue.

As safety and training practices have developed, HEC has been adopted by a growing number of utility helicopter operators. Around 2010, some of the line patrol workers at LADWP began having serious conversations about HEC. They understood the potential and began seeking input on how LADWP might begin developing such a program and earn acceptance from administrators and union officials. But even some among their own ranks were reluctant to buy into such a radical change in how they work.

“I tried to get this going when I was a journeyman patrolman,” said Jim Schultz, now an electrical distribution mechanic supervisor for LADWP transmission lines and safety and training manager. “We were so far behind the curve as far as helicopter [HEC] work [was concerned]. . . . But ultimately, our tenacity paid off, and we secured department and union approval. This program is one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of as I look back at my career now that I’m getting ready to retire.”

Advocates from within

Another advocate for HEC came from the LADWP pilot ranks. Amati “Maui” Maurizio was a relatively new addition to the organization, but came with considerable short-haul and HEC experience. He spent several years working for Papillon Helicopters as a contract pilot with Grand Canyon Helitack, one of the busiest of the National Park helicopter programs, and one known for extensive use of HEC.

“DWP hadn’t hired any pilots for 17 years before I came on board,” said Maurizio. “So I kinda brought a little bit of fresh new blood. I brought my short haul experience and I said, ‘Why don’t we do this [HEC]? It’s an industry standard and many companies use short haul. It’s a great tool!’”

A line worker utilizes ARS’s Air Rescue Vest to effect a simulated extraction of an injured co-worker from within the steel structure of a utility tower.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enacted new workplace safety guidelines for utility workers. Crews were required to wear fall protection with “100 percent tie-off.” This meant wearing an approved body harness or safety belt, and as they climb, workers must be positively attached to the structure at all times using safety lanyards. The practice of free climbing poles and towers was forbidden.

While the new requirement was intended to improve safety, many viewed the ruling negatively. They were concerned it would significantly increase the time required for crews to climb towers, thus increasing fatigue and reducing productivity.

“The 100 percent belt [requirement] wreaked havoc on all of the troops,” said Schultz. “We used to free climb everything, including power poles. Now, if you can even fathom 100 percent belts on a lattice structure, it’s just horrible. And then transferring from one side of the tower to the other, it’s taxing on guys and then there’s all the extra gear we have to carry.”

Of all the connections LADWP made in researching HEC, one in particular proved to be pivotal. Air Rescue Systems (ARS) is an industry leader with its innovative curriculum for HEC training and the manufacture of mission-specific hardware.

Over nearly a decade, ARS invested considerable time with LADWP discussing HEC, developing program concepts and training proposals. Maurizio was also an advocate of ARS, having used their equipment during his time at Grand Canyon.

Still more proponents of HEC came from outside electrical contractors who regularly perform work for LADWP. Many were very comfortable with HEC having used it on other jobs, and they understood how using it improves overall efficiency.

It takes a great deal of skill, coordination and confidence on the part of both the pilot and the line worker to execute a precision delivery into a utility tower amongst large hanging insulators, power lines and overhead static lines.

“It’s a way to move forward, to reduce the risk guys were exposed to with long drives to job sites, [and] climbing structures,” said Bob Cockell, president of ARS. “I’ve found, when we’ve shared these techniques, they find out it is actually a risk-managed process. It’s safer, and with that comes increased productivity.”

Starting class

In 2018, Schultz and his line patrol mechanics won approval to move forward with developing their HEC program, and ARS was chosen as the training and equipment provider. Participation in the program was strictly on a volunteer basis, for line patrol mechanics as well as pilots. Funding for three initial training classes came from safety and training entities within LADWP, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 18.

The first class was held in November 2018 for 12 line patrol workers and lasted 10 days. This was followed by classes in December and January, resulting in 39 line patrol workers being trained.

The ARS Air Reach Seat can be configured as a single-person chair or as seen here, in a “two-seat” configuration, with each seat providing a safe working load of 375 pounds.

“Each class has three tracks,” explained Cockell. “We did helicopter operations safety and short haul for power utility — so doing the basics correctly. We then got into work practices for power utility operations — using all the positioning devices so they can do their job, using the Air Reach Seats, Ladder Flight Bars, hanging marker balls, [and] insulator change outs.
“The third track was ‘up and out’ line worker rescue [from inside the lattice steel transmission structures]. So, now they actually start looking at, how do we use this [technique] with brothers that have been hurt? We have the ability now with the short haul, why not be able to take care of our own guys, too — and at a really high level.”

While crews excelled working through all blocks of instruction, Schultz believes one was particularly valuable. “I think the most important thing is the tower rescue capability. If something were to happen, even if we’re not doing HEC work, just having the ability to rescue our brothers that much quicker and get them to safety is just huge for us.”

To date, six classes have been conducted, bringing the total of trained line patrol workers to nearly 50. While a majority of the workers participating in the program are a “younger breed,” even some of the “old school” guys are enthusiastic about HEC and what it brings to performing their job.

Line workers form a recent HEC training class familiarize themselves with ARS’s Air Rescue Extraction System before employing it during training scenarios.

“I was 100 percent all in, no apprehension at all,” said John McKaskle, a veteran linesman and now a supervisor. “Oh my gosh, the efficiency and productivity, I can see it going through the roof.

“As transmission line workers, we’ve always dreamed of being able to fly in and fly out because we work remotely. So, while we work in some beautiful areas, there’s a lot of driving, often miles via 4×4 and then setting up…. So, the efficiency — in my opinion — is just above all. And with the efficiency, you’ve got the productivity and everything that goes with that.”

In the pilot ranks, HEC has also been well received, even by those who had little or no previous live-load experience. “They were really, really good external load pilots,” said Cockell. “Now it’s just tweaking what they already do to human external load — really fine-tuning that stuff. It was building confidence, too. Except for the few who had done human loads, it was a really new thing for them having to think, ‘Now, I actually have humans on the bottom of this thing.’”

Of the six LADWP pilots, four have adopted an all-in attitude with HEC and are very much hands-on participants during training evolutions, including the classroom portions. “They came along to every single bit of classroom, all the didactics, they were folded right into it,” said Cockell.

“Anything we do with the line workers, the pilots are right there as part of it. A lot of times you don’t get that. Instead, you’re often trying to twist arms to get the pilots to always show up and always be really engaged in the process. Not with these guys.”

Taking the program forward

Presently, LADWP operates four helicopters: two Bell 407s and two Airbus AS350 B3s, each performing a similar mission profile and averaging 1,500 hours annually.

For Maurizio, who has advanced to chief pilot, each airframe has its strengths for particular missions. He has, however, developed a particular fondness for the Airbus, due in large part to a recent modification.

“The transition to HEC in the 407 is easier — it’s a more stable machine and more responsive to your control inputs because of its rotor system. Initially, it was a bit more of a challenge to do such precision work with the AStar because the vertical reference window was very small. So when I saw this new STC [the Maximum Pilot View Kit] from Swiss Rotor Services, I fell in love, and I thought, ‘This is a game changer for us.’ And it is!”

In addition to the training curriculum, ARS also designs, engineers and manufactures specialty hardware tailored to HEC: body harnesses, long lines and short haul lines, one- and two-person Air Reach Seats, and the Air Rescue Vest, just to name a few.

An LADWP line worker indicates “clear for forward flight” utilizing the Air Rescue Extraction System during a training scenario.

Their line of mission specific equipment and accessories are purpose-designed and built by working helicopter professionals using real world experience and the latest in industry technologies.

“We manufacture this entire suite of very specific HEC operations equipment,” said Cockell. “And through training with these guys and using the equipment, they’ve found more detailing in the equipment and we’ve made some very positive changes based on end user input right from LADWP. We’ve made some really great mods to our equipment that really are game changers.”

HEC is used to fly in a “rescuer” to a simulated “injured” co-worker, who is “unconscious” and trapped/suspended below a utility tower. Once secured, the “injured” worker and rescuer are lifted clear of the structure and delivered to safety.

Today, LADWP is beginning its fourth year of HEC operations with strong support from throughout the organization. Operationally, it’s assessing its fleet and looking at how adding a light twin-engine helicopter would enhance the program’s capabilities. It has also awarded ARS a two-year contract extension for additional training classes and safety audits in the field, something Cockell finds especially gratifying.

“It’s like I just taught the class and they’re doing everything they were taught, except they’ve improved on things, increased capabilities and techniques to the next level,” he said. “They’ve found those little tricks that make things work even better than what we originally taught, and they’ve done it on their own. So when you get out of the classroom and really watch them work in the field, It’s pretty cool to see how it has evolved. But it’s still a rigorously risk-managed safety-driven process.

With the high demand for electrical energy, utility managers are reluctant to de-energize power lines for maintenance. Using HEC, some of this work can be accomplished while lines are still energized.

“The geographical mass they have, going up to the Oregon border, deep into Utah, Nevada, the desert, the vastness of where some of their transmission lines run — it’s pretty crazy,” Cockell continued.

“Being able to use the helicopter to get this work done saves them weeks and months versus doing everything from the ground where they’re exposed to hours and miles of off-road travel to get to the most remote towers, then climbing the structure, and other pitfalls can be mitigated by using the helicopter.”

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