'Buckle Up' for SCE Helicopter Pilots Has a Whole Different Meaning

Helicopters are a key resource for building transmission lines like those for the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project.

September 26, 2013 | By Paul Klein

When some Southern California Edison (SCE) linemen “buckle up,” it’s not always for their daily drive to work. Their commute can involve securing themselves into a helicopter that flies them to the top of a 200-foot steel tower where they work to build high-voltage transmission lines that deliver electricity to customers.

But helicopters provide more than a traffic-free, aerial ride to work. SCE is using helicopters of varying sizes and capabilities to build the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project which, when completed, will be able to deliver up to 4,500 megawatts of largely renewable energy, enough electricity to power three million homes.

The work horse for building these massive steel structures is the Erickson Air Crane helicopter, a complex, elongated, heavy-lift helicopter that resembles a grasshopper and requires multiple pilots to ferry and install transmission tower sections weighing from 7,000 to 18,500 pounds.

“Those who fly air cranes are in an exclusive club, with only a handful of pilots in the world commanding this skill,” said Erik Mereno, SCE construction manager. “When a section arrives at the construction site, the backseat pilot takes control of the air crane, and facing backwards, carefully maneuvers the transmission tower sections into place.”

Mereno noted that helicopters are particularly useful for carrying large, heavy sections of lattice steel towers to the construction site where they are skillfully set on top of one another before being bolted into place. Helicopters are working on a large portion of Tehachapi Segment 6 that runs through the Angeles National Forest, north of Los Angeles.

A typical construction day on Segment 6 could include the use of up to 12 helicopters to fly hundreds of linemen to the top of these lattice steel towers, where they position themselves for the wire-stringing process along the 27-mile route.

When Segment 6 is completed, the wire will be connected to 136 towers, each built with four to five lattice steel sections.

“Helicopters are critical to keeping the project on schedule, particularly where we have to bring heavy tower segments and a large workforce into remote areas such as the Angeles National Forest,” said Mereno. “By using helicopters, more time is devoted to building the towers as our work force spends less time driving to these remote construction sites.”

The use of helicopters is not without challenges, particularly those occurring naturally.

Building transmission towers and stringing wire through mountainous terrain and weather conditions such as heavy clouds, rain, snow and wind can be complicated, even with the use of helicopters.

Mereno said that helicopters also assist SCE in minimizing environmental impacts associated with constructing the Tehachapi project in the Angeles National Forest. By using aircraft, SCE minimizes vehicular traffic and its resulting impacts to roadways and natural vegetation throughout the forest.

“Given the physical, environmental and natural challenges linemen face building the transmission line through the Angeles National Forest, helicopters make this work possible.”

Topics: Customer Service, Infrastructure