On August 8th, Wilmington, Delaware was hit by winds strong enough pull trees clean out of the ground, tipping them onto the transmission lines, causing a chain reaction that would cause insulators to tear free – damaging arms on lattice towers, and causing outages throughout the region. The force from the wind had to have been intense.
After arriving at the job site, I called the Infrastructure Inspections Manager (Phil Johnston) – and we reviewed the project scope and any milestone ‘events’ that would happen during the day. In the course of the next ten minutes, I saw guys mobilize equipment to a structure down the line with the helicopter flying back and forth overhead doing test runs and inspecting the flight line for any issues that would prevent safe operations. The field crews were hustling back and forth from line trucks to foreman trucks, with a buzz of communications over the radio about tasks necessary to get the job done safely. The trucks were evenly parked. Materials were stowed and tucked away. A few crooked trucks, and it would have been obvious that the guys didn’t care. The fact is, it’s just a reflection of who AUI is as a company. The details matter!
I was able to talk quickly with Joe Grass (UCS) and Hans Granger (AUI – General Foreman) in regards to the project details, and was able to find out that I was two city blocks from where they were preparing an LZ (landing/loading zone) for the helicopter, which would be used to stage equipment and crew members for delivery to the damaged structures.
I teamed up with Phil Johnston (AUI – I&I Manager) and headed out onto the railroad lines to get ready to capture some pictures and video of the helicopter. From where I prepared, we were only a few structures away from a cluster of trees that had been cut, chopped up and moved down the hillside. It was pretty clear that these trees fell on the lines, causing the damage. The evidence wasn’t even fully cleaned up – but the work to restore the power was already underway. The rocks around the railroads were littered with sawdust and the exposed sawn-off stumps were still sticking out of the underbrush at odd angles – cut back enough to prevent contact by any passing trains. The downed lines were on the opposite side of the structure from the train tracks – so there wasn’t any risk of the lines interfering with any train cars – but the threat of working on or near the rails raises concerns.
Not long after Phil and I arrived at the work site – a crew of guys drove up to the site in a ‘side-by-side’ all terrain vehicle. Once the vehicle stopped, the guys dismount and grab their gear from the bed and immediately start outfitting with harnesses and climbing gear. While they got ready for the climb, the guys were chatting about the timeline – asking questions, getting their head in the right place to make the job a success.
For the next five minutes, Cameron and Mason climbed the structure – and the helicopter made it’s rounds overhead. The chopping ambient noise would grow in intensity, and the guys would look towards the canopy of trees to try to make out where it was located. After several flights back and forth, we got word that they were getting an arm delivered to the LZ for the helicopter to deliver to the damaged structure. It may take another ten or fifteen minutes.
Glancing up at Mason and Cameron at the top of the structure, they were continually adjusting and trying to get comfortable – although that wasn’t exactly possible, when carrying extra gear, wearing a climbing harness, fire retardant shirt and pants, helmet, climbing boots – and in the heat of the summer sun. No shade up there.
From a distance, we could hear the helicopter spool up it’s rotors – and after a minute or so, the pitch changed slightly. One of the guys said, “That’s it – he’s coming!”
The aircraft swooped in – carrying two guys at the bottom of the long-line, to be delivered to the top of the structure. Without knowing the technicalities, it looked like they were hung below the heli from a long line – clasped on, and dangling together at the mercy of the pilot. The pilot expertly positioned the aircraft above the structure and lowered the two linemen down to the structure. The linemen clipped onto the structure, then disconnected from the long-line. Communicating to the aircraft by hand-signals, they sent the message that they were clear. Once confirmed, the pilot pulled away gently – then up and away back to the LZ.
The instant the helicopter was visible again, it was much closer to right above our location, and the replacement lattice structure transmission arm seemed like it wasn’t very far above. The arm swung gracefully under the helicopter as it approached the structure with the crew waiting eagerly. One of the linemen had climbed out and was holding his arm out where the arm was heading – either to signal the pilot or to get a good handle on the arm as it swung in towards the structure. The pilot lowered the part down to the structure as it spun one revolution and was grabbed by the crew. Within seconds – all four were fastening the part – so that the line to the helicopter could be safely untethered. Once the arm was secured to the structure, the helicopter was disconnected – and the crew sent the hand-signal for “all-clear”. The aircraft slowly lifted up and headed back to the LZ.
As the crew continued to fasten and secure the arm, and the helicopter having landed back at the LZ, it wasn’t long before the sweat kicked back in – and the reminder that we’re out in the heat of the summer day, as more sweat beads formed. I couldn’t help but think that these guys had been out here for days. Over the course of the last few weeks – the storms had kept them busy day to night – long hours into the weekends, clearing as many trouble tickets as they possibly can to ensure that the grid is maintained. AUI’s mission is to make sure that our customer is satisfied and that includes our customers’ customers. If there are lines down, or a hazardous situation that needs attention to prevent further outages – our job isn’t done.