View from the top: A first-hand account of aerial power line inspections

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“Don’t eat a big breakfast,” my co-worker told me the day before my very first helicopter ride. “People tend to get sick.”

With nothing but a half a protein bar and cup of coffee in my stomach, I headed to Republic Airport in Farmingdale to embark on a morning-long trip with our vegetation management specialist, Mike Draws, and pilot, Frans.

IMG_0218Once a year, Mike and his team work with a helicopter service to conduct aerial inspections of the power lines across Long Island and the Rockaways. The overhead survey, Mike explained, is generally performed over the course of three days in late May or early June, prior to hurricane season. The inspection allows our crews to spot any potential interference–usually overgrown branches and decaying trees–with power lines that could cause outages or fires.

Aerial surveillance is no small feat. Before taking off, Mike must notify McArthur Airport, Nassau and Suffolk Police Departments, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and others, for air traffic purposes as well as national security. Weather depending, Mike spends between 8 and 14 hours in flight.

After a briefing on in-flight conduct and safety, we were ready for take-off. Weather that week had been overcast, but winds had died down and clouds made way for sun that Friday morning. I climbed in the back seat as Mike and Frans took the helm, and waited as the propellers spun. I’m not quite sure what I was waiting for–I suppose something similar to when an airplane takes off; the high-pitched humming of engines, or that tingly feeling in your heart when the altitude changes. This was somewhat anti-climactic. The craft gently lifted off it’s wooden launch pad as I watched the ground below me turn from full size homes to postage stamps.

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Still no vomit. Things were looking up–but I was looking down. We coasted over Melville, north into Huntington, occasionally dipping less than 100 feet from the power lines. Mike and Frans chatted over the headset like old friends, giving one another directions as if we were driving to the local grocery store.

“We’re going to make a left up here,” Mike said to Frans, pointing to a highlighted line on a paper map.

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Mike highlights circuits as he and Frans fly overhead to indicate which have been inspected and which still need inspection. Simultaneously, Mike uses a special program created by PSEG Long Island’s IT team to send information on potential dangers in real-time–think Google Maps meets iPhone’s drop-pin feature. The program uses GPS technology to display a map, similar to the paper one, with circuit lines. On the right-hand side is a drop-down menu indicating various issues: obstructing branches, decaying trees, trees leaning on wires, among others. Mike selects whatever the issue may be, and drops a pin on the map in correspondence with the problem. This information is then sent to our transmission and distribution crews in Hicksville. Managers will dispatch their crews to the location of the problem, or potential problem, for immediate resolution.

We continued our journey through Huntington, along the train tracks in Woodbury, to Syosset and Jericho before heading south to Freeport. At this point, I was beginning to understand the small breakfast warning. Trying to focus on a stationary sight in the distance, we headed east along the rail road and circled north again into the town of Brookhaven, doing a fly-by of our substation in Holtsville, before heading south over Fire Island and back to Republic Airport.

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Three hours later, I was happy to be reunited with the pavement. We said our goodbyes and I tried to let my stomach make its way down from my esophagus. But as I pulled out of the airport into bumper-to-bumper traffic onto the Southern State, one spell of nausea seemed like a small price to pay for a speedy ride home.

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