features On The Line: Training with BPA and Priority 1 Air Rescue

Human external cargo operations are now commonplace in powerline construction and maintenance. Should they be? A visit to Bonneville Power Administration provides a case study of the choices that go into putting lives on the line — literally.
Avatar for Elan Head By Elan Head | October 28, 2014

Estimated reading time 25 minutes, seconds.

Priority 1 Air Rescue has worked with BPA on its helicopter rescue program for four years. Constant skill review, practice, and debriefings are provided by Priority 1 instructors to ensure a high level of standardization. Heath Moffatt Photos

Pasco, Wash., is not the first city that comes to mind when you hear the words “Pacific Northwest.” Seattle and Portland, yes. Pasco, no. And there’s a reason for this. Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland — which together make up the Tri-Cities region of southeastern Washington state — sit squarely within the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, giving the Tri-Cities a climate that’s closer to Arizona desert than coastal rainforest. In fact, on this hot July afternoon, the Tri-Cities might as well be in Arizona: the high temperature in Pasco is 100 F, only one degree cooler than the day’s high in Phoenix.

It’s dusty, too. Like everyone else who has gathered on the outskirts of Pasco for helicopter short-haul rescue training with Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Priority 1 Air Rescue, my face and clothes are covered with fine grit kicked up by the rotor wash of a BPA Bell 407. Although 60 feet above the ground in a swaying Genie boom lift puts me above the worst of the dust cloud, I still receive a mild sandblasting every time the aircraft hovers overhead. But that’s OK. Among those of us working at altitude, my job is by far the easiest, and I’m certainly not going to complain.

I’m here to witness BPA’s annual lineman rescue training, which is now in the seventh week-long session of an eight-week summer program. This is the fourth year in which BPA has collaborated with Priority 1 on the training program, which provides approximately 125 linemen with basic proficiency in short-haul and other rescue techniques. Next to me is Priority 1’s Bob Watson, a former United States Coast Guard rescue swimmer who is supervising the proceedings from the air. Watson is wearing a helmet with 2/3-way Polycon headset, which allows him to communicate through the helicopter noise with Craig Tavares, his counterpart on the ground.

The wire environment is an unforgiving one in which to conduct human external cargo operations. Nevertheless, HEC can offer significant advantages over traditional work methods and rescue techniques.

We are within arm’s length of a steel lattice transmission tower, where a BPA lineman has braced himself in the cage. This is the designated spotter, who is using a handheld radio to speak to BPA’s chief pilot, Jack Conroy, in the 407. Another lineman stands on a ladder suspended from one arm of the tower, next to a string of blue-green insulators. A human dummy hangs from the ladder as well, representing a lineman who has been incapacitated by a fall, electrocution, or other medical emergency, and appearing a little worse for the wear.

One by one, linemen on the ground take turns clipping onto the end of Conroy’s 100-foot long line under Tavares’ supervision. They are then flown to the ladder to “rescue” the dummy using techniques they learned in the classroom, coordinating their precision placement with Conroy through head and hand signals. After each rescue mission is complete, Conroy flies the dummy back to the tower, where the lineman on the ladder secures it for the next iteration. The procedure is straightforward, but the operating environment is not. There are countless ways in which the rescuing lineman or dummy can become entangled — in the metal structure of the tower, the ladder, the insulators, the transmission lines, or the other lineman’s safety equipment. Even when the operation flows perfectly, the margin for error is slim, and everyone involved has a vital role to play in ensuring it comes off safely.

The safety spotter on the tower is in constant communication with the pilot and rescue specialists during an HEC operation. His greater distance provides him with a “triangle view” that enhances overall situational awareness.

For all of its hazards, however, this helicopter rescue technique is remarkably swift and effective, especially when compared with more traditional methods that involve climbing towers and letting victims down by rope. During their week-long annual training, BPA’s linemen will practice these other rescue techniques as well, and the contrast will make an impression upon them. All of the linemen with whom I speak in Pasco will express enthusiasm for their helicopter training. Many of them will also tell me they’d like to see these “Class B” human external cargo (HEC) methods incorporated into BPA’s normal operations — because BPA is one of a rapidly dwindling number of utility companies that do not use HEC for regular powerline maintenance.

HEC methods that are classified as Class B (jettisonable) under part 133 of the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are not new to the power utility industry, but a number of factors have led to an explosion in their popularity in recent years. Seeing two linemen dangling 100 feet below a helicopter was at one time an exception in the industry; today, at least in the United States, it is a norm. Proponents of HEC tout its efficiency and environmental friendliness, and the safety factor associated with keeping the helicopter above the wire environment. However, BPA isn’t the only organization that has reservations about the unchecked growth of HEC in powerline work — and two high-profile fatal accidents have recently brought the practice into the spotlight. After years of flying HEC in the U.S. without clear standards or guidance, the helicopter industry has recognized that it’s time to give HEC operations a closer look.

Using a special technique developed by BPA and Priority 1, BPA linemen practice rescuing a dummy from a spacer cart, which is used to travel along conductors to replace spacer dampers. A major spacer damper replacement program was the original motivation for BPA’s helicopter rescue program.

BPA uses a “belly band” system as a secondary safety device to prevent the inadvertent release of the crewmember on the end of the line. The FAA classifies such restraints as portable safety devices (PSDs).

A BPA rescue specialist preps an injured “lineman” hanging from his fall arrest tether, assisting the second rescue specialist with his short-haul pick-off. Linemen involved in short-haul rescues must take special care to avoid entanglement in structures and wires.

A lineman suspended from a Bell 407 moves in to perform a “pickoff rescue” of a dummy hanging from a ladder on a transmission tower. Around 125 BPA linemen went through the training in Pasco, Wash., this summer.

Filling a Need
Headquartered in Portland, Ore., Bonneville Power Administration is a self-funding federal nonprofit agency belonging to the U.S. Department of Energy. BPA markets about a third of the electric power used in the Pacific Northwest, and operates and maintains about three-quarters of the high-voltage transmission network in a 300,000-square-mile service area that includes Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and western Montana (plus small parts of eastern Montana, California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming). It has around 3,200 employees, at the core of which group are its elite, highly skilled linemen — professional adrenaline junkies who climb 500-foot towers, ride on transmission lines in small carts across gaping chasms, and otherwise do what it takes to keep power flowing across the Pacific Northwest.

“It takes a special breed of cat to be a lineman,” observed BPA technical services representative Craig Froh, a third-generation power lineman himself who has been working in the industry since 1973, and with BPA since 1987. Like most linemen, Froh is a little opinionated, particularly when it comes to BPA’s crews. “I believe the cream of the crop comes to work for BPA,” he said.

Froh explained that the impetus for BPA’s helicopter rescue program came from the launch of a major spacer damper replacement initiative. Spacer dampers, or “spacers,” are installed on conductor bundles to prevent the lines from clashing with each other, which can result in fatigue strand breaks. As they wear out, however, failed spacers can actually cut through conductors, causing the lines to part and fall to the ground. BPA began replacing failing spacers on its 500-kV main grid in 2000. In fiscal year 2008, the agency started a five-year, $65-million project to replace failing spacers on another 3,000 miles of line — a program that would result in thousands of hours of exposure for linemen riding the conductors in spacer carts, often over hostile and inaccessible terrain. “We got to discussing it, and we realized we had no way of performing a rescue, and we definitely needed one,” Froh recalled.

BPA and Priority 1 personnel pose at the end of a successful week of training — the seventh of eight week-long sessions conducted over the summer.

Although BPA — which currently owns three Bell 407s and one Bell 206L4 — had already been operating helicopters for decades, the organization had become decidedly more conservative in its helicopter operations following the fatal crash of its Bell JetRanger while pulling sock line in 2004. The immediate cause of the accident was a snag in the sock line reel, which caused the line to pull in when it should have been paying out, resulting in the pilot losing control of the aircraft and slamming into the ground (he was killed upon impact). However, an internal report on the accident identified an additional 18 root causes and contributing factors, including a lack of established procedures for external load operations, which led to poor rigging and flying techniques; and a lack of standards for pre-job briefings and communications protocols. “We were doing everything wrong,” one lineman who was present at the accident told me. He said he would “never forget the sound” of the JetRanger’s Allison C20 engine spooling up as it strained against the sock line in the seconds before the crash.

After the accident, BPA continued to rely heavily on its helicopters for visual inspection of power lines, but it was institutionally wary of doing anything too exotic with them — and human external cargo was exotic. So there was some initial resistance to the idea of short-haul rescue. According to Froh, however, the need for the capability was just too compelling. Once BPA management signed off on a helicopter rescue program, the organization solicited bids for expert help in developing it. BPA eventually awarded a multi-year contract to Priority 1 Air Rescue, which specializes in training for helicopter search-and-rescue and other special missions. “We basically worked together with Priority 1 in putting the program together,” Froh said.

A Genie boom lift allows Priority 1 personnel to watch each practice rescue operation closely, ensuring strict adherence to standardized procedures and a greater level of safety.

In the first year of the program, BPA and Priority 1 conducted two 40-hour classes for only those linemen who volunteered. Less than two months after that initial training, one of those volunteer linemen performed BPA’s first short-haul rescue with pilot Jack Conroy. With the value of the program no longer in doubt, training was expanded the following year to include all of BPA’s linemen and apprentices. Now, they receive recurrent training every year in a variety of rescue techniques and scenarios, including situations in which a lineman might be hanging from a conductor or trapped in a spacer cart. Over the four years that the training has been in place, short-haul techniques have been used in three actual rescues.

If BPA was doing certain things wrong in 2004, today, they’re striving to do everything right. The organization has established clear operational procedures and communications protocols for HEC, and adheres to them rigorously. It has scrutinized its equipment and upgraded it as required, with BPA’s linemen even going so far as to design HEC harnesses optimized for their operations. And they train. Conroy — who has witnessed accidents himself — noted that being called upon to rescue a colleague is often more difficult than rescuing a stranger, because of the emotional connection involved. Being able to rely upon ingrained procedures is key. “The more training you do, the more automatic it becomes,” he said, likening BPA’s repetitive rescue training to a pilot’s emergency procedures — after a while, you don’t pause to remember; you just do.

Clear, timely communications — both verbal and nonverbal — are vital during HEC work.

Craig Tavares, Bob Watson, and others at Priority 1 Air Rescue have nothing but praise for BPA’s rescue program and the skill and ingenuity of its linemen, all of which they regard as exemplary in the industry. “We feel it is a world-class model, and the success and capability of this program is directly related to the caliber of the team of people involved in the BPA program,” said Tavares, adding, “The linemen crews and instructors involved are always focusing on how to make their trade better and safer.” According to Froh, BPA is wholly committed to maintaining these high standards. “Safety is job 1,” he said. “We’re not just going to carabiner on the line and go for it. . . . We went in hook, line, and sinker.”

Much of what BPA has learned through its short-haul rescue program could be applied to routine HEC operations, too — and many of the agency’s linemen would like to see that happen. But, while the decision to use HEC is easy when a stranded lineman needs urgent medical attention, in other circumstances, it’s not as clear-cut. The question for BPA and others in the industry is this: when it comes to HEC operations in everyday powerline work, what’s the right balance of risk versus reward?

The Argument for HEC
“You have to get over the idea that two people on the end of a line looks dangerous,” said Torbjorn “TC” Corell, chief pilot for Southern California Edison (SCE) Company, who has overseen the development of SCE’s innovative — and in many ways industry-leading — HEC program. “If you accept powerline patrol in a single-engine aircraft every day, HEC is far safer . . . the safety protocol is way beyond doing a normal powerline patrol.”

Corell is one of the many proponents of HEC who have driven its wider adoption in recent years. In fact, the benefits of HEC can be substantial, for utility companies and linemen alike. Since SCE implemented its HEC program in 2010, the work method has allowed it to reduce labor hours per job by an average of 30 percent compared to traditional methods, which required linemen to climb structures or use bucket trucks. On some jobs, HEC can improve efficiency by a factor of four or more. And, compared to driving bucket trucks through sensitive ecosystems, HEC operations can be environmentally friendly — an important consideration for utility companies whose every move may be tracked by environmental groups.

Priority 1 is currently certifying a new dual three-ring short-haul rescue device in order to provide linemen with a greater degree of safety. Recently pull-tested in the BPA lab, it has been shown to hold over 9,000 pounds.

There is also a health and safety argument to be made for Class B HEC. Not surprisingly, most helicopter accidents in the power utility industry are due to wire strikes or main rotor contact with structures; putting a lineman at the end of a long line keeps the aircraft well clear of wires for most of the operation. Jeff Johnson, executive vice president for Wilson Construction Company and chair of the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Utilities, Patrol, and Construction (UPAC) Committee, observed, “The industry recognizes that in some situations it can be safer to perform specific tasks using HEC. Thus it is important that HEC can be used as one of several means to construct and maintain powerlines.”

Moreover, while there are obvious hazards associated with dangling beneath a helicopter, there is risk exposure in traditional work methods, too. BPA was deeply affected by the 2012 death of lineman who fell 100 feet while working in a transmission tower. The accident helped drive BPA’s move to 100 percent fall protection, but even with a fall protection program in place, climbing towers can be dangerous and fatiguing. Also, while the operation and maintenance of aircraft is highly regulated, the upkeep of bucket trucks is less so. One BPA lineman told me he felt much more confident hanging beneath the Bell 407 than perched 30 feet above the ground in an aging bucket truck.

Southern California Edison is one of the utility companies that has found HEC to be a valuable time- and money-saver in routine operations. However, the company has spared no expense in developing its program, which is built around twin-engine EC135 helicopters. Skip Robinson Photo

Outside of the U.S., helicopter operators are often subject to stricter regulation of HEC operations. Here, Blackcomb Aviation performs HEC work in British Columbia. Marc Witolla Photo

HEC methods have been used for mountain rescue operations since the 1960s in Europe, since the 1970s in Canada, and since the 1980s in the United States. When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reviewed human external load [HEL] operations in 1998, it concluded that, “In relation to the overall frequency of rotorcraft accidents/incidents, it is felt that HEL operations are a minor issue, compared to mechanical and structural properties of rotorcraft.” The relatively good safety record of HEC/HEL operations is no doubt much of the reason why the FAA has been content to permit humans to be carried as Class B loads under FAR part 133, provided they serve an essential function in connection with the external-load operation. According to Dave Feerst, director of safety at Winco Powerline Services, the FAA’s willingness since 2006 to go on the record with this permissive attitude is partly why U.S. helicopter companies have felt comfortable expanding their HEC operations (in Notice 8000.330, the FAA states, “A part 133 external-load operator may transport externally electrical/power utility company personnel [i.e., linemen] when performing patrols, maintenance, and repairs of electrical power lines using a single-engine or multi-engine helicopter”).

However, as HEC becomes more common, is its accident rate increasing, too? That’s the troubling implication of two recent fatal accidents in Texas, which caught the attention of the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as well as the larger helicopter industry. The first occurred on Nov. 27, 2012, when a Brim Aviation Hughes 369D helicopter experienced a loss of power while conducting long-line construction work near Childress. The pilot sustained only minor injuries during the subsequent forced landing, but the worker at the end of the long line was fatally injured. Initial reports indicate that the aircraft ran out of fuel, but the NTSB has yet to issue a probable cause for the accident; many in the industry are anxious to learn what additional factors may have contributed to the crash.

The second recent high-profile accident occurred on Aug. 5, 2013, near Ackerly, and involved a Haverfield Aviation Hughes 369D that was short-hauling two linemen onto a transmission tower using a 100-foot long line. Shortly after departure, as the helicopter was climbing, the long line collided with a shield wire that was suspended between two towers. The impact severed the long line, and the two linemen at the end of it fell about 200 feet to their deaths. The NTSB’s probable cause determination for the accident is fairly straightforward: “the pilot’s failure to identify and maintain adequate clearance from a shield wire that was suspended between power transmission line towers.” According to the NTSB report, the pilot stated that the shield wire had not been identified or discussed during the preflight briefing, and that the clear sky condition and morning light made the wire impossible to see from the ground.

From left: BPA mechanic Al Logan, chief pilot Jack Conroy, and technical services representative Craig Froh. BPA’s conservative approach to HEC operations has emphasized training and standardized procedures.

“This accident definitely affected a lot of people,” acknowledged Haverfield’s new director of safety, Aaron McCarter. “Learning from this accident and moving forward is key . . . what can we do to prevent this from happening again?” According to McCarter, Haverfield has made significant enhancements to safety policies and procedures that were in place before the accident — insisting upon more rigorous tailboard briefings, for example. McCarter said the company is also striving to become more proactive about safety through better application of its safety management system. One thing it is not doing, however, is rethinking its reliance on HEC. Said McCarter, “It [HEC] is a normal part of what Haverfield does.”

The Texas accidents don’t seem to have discouraged the rest of the power utility industry from pursuing HEC operations, either. However, they have lent urgency to UPAC’s effort to develop best practices for Class B HEC, an endeavor that has been in progress for a couple of years. HEC operations are highly regulated in many countries outside the U.S., but within the States, supervision can be lax. Although the FARs contain specific operational, equipment, and training requirements for Class D HEC operations — in which the person at the end of the line is a commercial passenger, rather than a person essential to a work operation — they do not meaningfully distinguish between human and non-human Class B external loads. Indeed, under the FARs, a lineman at the end of a 100-foot line is guaranteed no greater protections than a load of dog poop being slung out of a glacier camp in Alaska.

UPAC’s best practices are an attempt to bridge that regulatory gap, providing operators and customers with guidance on pilot and crewmember qualifications, training, procedures, and equipment for Class B HEC operations in power utility work. At press time, these best practices still existed only in draft form. Because Class B HEC operations have flourished in the U.S. with minimal regulatory guidance, most power utility helicopter operators have their own ideas about when and how these operations should be performed. So, it has taken UPAC’s diverse membership some time to find common ground.

Priority 1 Air Rescue’s Bob Watson, left, and Craig Tavares. Priority 1 encourages helicopter operators to adopt FAA Class D HEC standards to the fullest extent possible, according to Priority 1 president Brad Matheson.

One obvious question confronted by the committee was the suitability of single-engine helicopters for HEC work. For Class D external loads, U.S. FARs require that the aircraft be type certificated under transport Category A and provide hover capability with one engine inoperative (OEI) at that operating weight and altitude — a far cry from the old Hughes 369s that are used in most power utility work. TC Corell of Southern California Edison is a strong advocate for the use of multiengine helicopters for HEC, and has built SCE’s program around the Airbus Helicopters EC135. On any given day, “we are not starting the HEC program that day unless we know on paper we have OEI [performance],” he said. “If you can use twin-engine, why not?”

The “why not,” of course, is cost and performance — SCE’s 135s are often significantly limited in the temperatures and altitudes at which they can operate. SCE is for that reason looking at upgrading to the EC145 T2, but many in the industry see performance as an argument for sticking with less expensive, single-engine aircraft with a smaller footprint, even for operations in which a lineman may be suspended beneath the helicopter for an extended period of time. Proponents of single-engine aircraft point out that most HEC accidents result not from engine failures, but from procedural and training issues; consequently, UPAC’s draft best practices emphasize the importance of regular training, careful planning, and thorough briefings for everyone involved in an HEC operation.

The draft best practices also call for a secondary safety device to prevent the inadvertent release of the crewmember on the end of the line — something that is not required by the regulations. SCE’s 135s have a belly-mounted dual-hook, dual-release system that was certified in the U.S. by manufacturer Airbus Helicopters. However, aircraft that are not equipped with a dual-hook system (including BPA’s Bell 407) typically use an emergency anchor or “belly band” system, which is classified by the FAA as a portable safety device (PSD). In 2012, UPAC and HAI played a major role in working with the FAA to confirm the acceptability of PSDs, which the FAA was threatening to remove from the market due to confusion over Class B and Class D external load requirements. The FAA’s position on PSD use is now clarified in Information for Operators (InFO) 12015, which is referenced in the draft best practices.

Are the competitive, often personality-driven companies in the power utility helicopter industry the best candidates for collaborating on objective safety standards? Jeff Johnson of Wilson Construction is adamant that the members of UPAC are unanimous in their commitment to safety, telling me, “Everyone supports safety; no one has a proprietary interest in safety best practices. Everyone knows that an accident by a competitor hurts the entire industry, which is relatively small.” Ron Stewart, Wilson Construction’s chief pilot and director of helicopter flight operations, told me he believes that UPAC’s members have indeed begun to come to “common ground” with respect to the most pressing safety issues in Class B HEC. “Everyone wants to get it right, because they know [HEC] can be done safely and done effectively,” he said.

Preserving HEC as a useful work method for the power utility helicopter industry will require a willingness to recognize and mitigate the hazards inherent in HEC operations — which are considerable.

Weighing the Risks
In speaking with power utility helicopter operators about Class B HEC, there’s one thing I heard repeatedly: Class B HEC is a tool, but it’s not the only tool. While there are times when Class B HEC is the best or even the only way to accomplish an operation, at other times a different work method may be more suitable. While UPAC’s best practices draft gives some examples of operations in which Class B HEC has proven to be safe and effective — including marker ball installation, installation of travelers, and placement of crewmembers at an elevated position — it warns, “Pilots and operators should conduct a thorough safety analysis of any proposed Class B HEC operation to ensure that the use of Class B HEC is appropriate to the mission and that a proper hazard analysis has been conducted.”

That leaves a lot of leeway for organizations like BPA to decide how they want to employ HEC in their operations. While there are strong arguments for using HEC more widely, there’s also good reason for proceeding with caution. With Class B HEC operations becoming more common, the solid safety record cited by the FAA in its 1998 report on human external loads may no longer be relevant. The next fatal HEC accident will almost certainly increase pressure on the FAA to introduce restrictions on what is still, in the U.S., a largely unregulated practice — which perhaps the FAA should be doing anyway. Preserving Class B HEC as a useful work method will require diligence by the industry, and a willingness to recognize and address the hazards inherent in HEC operations.

“The work we do is hazardous anyway; you throw a helicopter into the mix and it becomes even more hazardous,” said BPA’s Craig Froh. “We work to mitigate the risk to the best of our ability.”

Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late-1990s. She can be reached at elan@mhmpub.com.

Notice a spelling mistake or typo?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Report an error or typo

Have a story idea you would like to suggest?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Suggest a story

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *