HAI/Mark Bennett Photo

Helicopters are essential in the effort to provide electricity to remote communities.

The days start early and can end late on the Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project, or Watay Project, an effort to supply reliable electric power to 17 remote communities in Canada. These localities extend across a 500-mile arc located north of the town of Red Lake and stretching east over the remote forests and lakes of west-central Ontario. Many communities, especially the northernmost, lack utility corridors and all-season road access, instead relying fully on power from diesel generators. During the winter, diesel can only be trucked in on ice roads or flown in at twice the expense.

A Columbia Helicopters Model 234 Chinook delivers a 16,000-lb. steel-lattice tower to a site in Alberta, Canada. (Columbia Helicopters/Dan Sweet)

Many utility or construction projects cross stark, sparsely populated areas, but working in roadless areas means ground-based equipment may be limited to highways and staging areas. While the arc of the Watay Project is 500 miles long, the entire project requires the installation of more than 4,800 steel towers onto right-of-ways stretching about 1,100 miles. Installation of substations and distribution lines round out the project.

Mitch Brown is the director of helicopter operations for Valard Construction, a Canadian utility contractor based in Calgary, Alberta, and the primary contractor for the Watay Project. “We have 5 of our own helicopters working on this project, and we’ve had subcontractors providing up to 20 other helicopters at the same time. We’ve had at least 3 aircraft work through the winter as well,” he says, describing the project’s scope.

Houston-based Quanta Services is a parent company to some of the top names in the helicopter utility industry, including Valard Construction; PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff, California; Winco Powerline Services of Aurora, Oregon; Haverfield Aviation of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Luma Utilities in Puerto Rico. “We offer a full range of helicopter services to the utility community,” says Spencer Duke, VP of aviation services for Quanta.

Working to Scale

Pilots on utility projects often fly from the left seat, allowing them to maintain direct visual operational control of the load while piloting the helicopter. (Valard Construction Photo)

Utility and construction work with helicopters varies dramatically by project. In some cases, such as installing a communication tower, the job involves one helicopter setting a single load, or pick. There might be multiple picks from one staging area for other projects, such as setting heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) units or ski-lift towers. Utility helicopters are also used to set communication structures in remote areas, support petroleum exploration operations in roadless areas in South America and the South Pacific, and provide transportation and logistical support in the Arctic and Antarctic.

On a power-line tower project, rotorcraft might be used for planning, mapping, and surveying. The unique ability of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to land in confined areas allows them to carry workers and hand tools to clear a landing site. Then, heavier helicopters can deliver the equipment and supplies needed to prepare tower sites. When concrete is necessary to establish bases for certain towers, helicopters carry buckets of concrete to the ground crews to direct into the ground or forms.

Utility helicopter companies can sometimes conduct smaller projects from parking lots or staging sites near roads. Pilots and maintenance crews might stay in commercially available accommodations. Larger projects often require significantly more planning to provide food and housing for the crews. With the scale of the Watay Project, working from multiple camps and staging sites is mandatory.

“We’ve split the project into three work fronts, with 22 substations and switching stations,” says Brown. “We had about 800 people working on this project at the high point, and I think we’ve had 12 major camps. The camp size changes depending on the location, but we’ve had a range of 100 to 300 people per camp.”

As with any development of this size, logistics is one of the biggest issues facing the crews. Many construction and utility projects have the benefit of roads wending their way through right-of-ways, but for the Watay Project, the only roads available are winter ice roads.

“You might have seen the Ice Road Truckers show on the History Channel on television. Those are the only kinds of roads we can use on this project,” says Brown. “We’re moving millions of pounds of steel into strategic positions, which requires advance planning. Even supplying fuel for the helicopters is an issue, and it’s been hard to keep up with fuel demands throughout the project.”

A Helicopter for Every Role

Large utility projects typically call for a variety of helicopters. From moving people to setting towers, using the appropriate aircraft saves time and money.

A veritable air show of vertical lift aircraft supports the Watay Project at different times of year. “We’ve used—or are using—the Airbus AS350 B3, Bell 206 LongRanger, Bell 407s, Bell 412s, Bell 214Bs, Bell 205s; and the heavy-lifter on this project is the Airbus H225 Super Puma,” says Brown.

Like most large construction projects around the world, helicopters on the Watay Project fill a variety of roles. Type 1 helicopters, the largest, and carriers of the greatest payload, often assist by moving equipment and delivering and setting towers or tower sections. Aircraft in this category include Air Cranes,  Sky­cranes, Chinooks, S-61s, Boeing-Vertol 107s, Black Hawks, and Super Pumas.

Type 2 helicopters—the mediums—carry and set tower sections, transport cement and other construction supplies, and move smaller pieces of equipment. Very common helicopters in this segment are the variants of the venerable Huey (UH-1), including restricted-category aircraft outfitted for construction use.

The lightest helicopters, the Type 3s, are often the most versatile aircraft on a construction project. These smaller aircraft regularly move workers from site to site and often directly onto a tower. They carry supplies on board, in skid baskets, or in sling loads below the helicopter.

Turbine-powered Type 3s are routinely used to carry and thread lines through transmission towers. These are typically “sock lines” or light but strong ropes that the pilots pull through guides on the towers. Ground crews then attach high-voltage transmission cables or lighter distribution cables to the sock line, winching the combined lines through the towers.

Precision Placement

Utility pilots often do significantly more than just deliver a load. Setting a load so that it doesn’t require additional handling, or perhaps making minor adjustments to its position, means crews can quickly move on to the next lift. While not all utility work requires precision placement, it saves time for the flight and ground crews and uses less fuel.

Precision placement of a load with a utility helicopter is a practice reportedly started by Wes Lematta of Columbia Helicopters in the late 1950s. Flying on a power-line project in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, Lematta used the left-seat controls on a training helicopter so he could see the load he was placing. Termed direct visual operational control (DVOC), or “flying the load,” placing the lead pilot in the left seat remains common in utility work today, although it depends on the load, the model of aircraft, and sometimes pilot preference.

Lematta and his younger brother Jim also claimed credit for developing the large plastic bubble windows that allow utility pilots to watch the load in inclement weather; Jim had nearly become hypothermic looking out an open window during a tower-setting project in Leadville, Colorado, in the 1960s.

An Airbus H225 Super Puma begins to lift a steel-lattice tower from a staging area along the Watay Project right-of-way. (Valard Construction Photo)

Carrying a load isn’t for every pilot. “I think one of the hardest things to learn about precision placement and external-­load work in general is the mental side of it,” says Andre Hutchings, an experienced utility pilot. After developing his skills with Columbia Helicopters for 26 years, Hutchings and his wife, Kimberly, opened Volo Mission, an external-load, longline, and aerial firefighting training company just northeast of Dallas, Texas.

“To remain calm, breathe, possess a lot of patience, and stay out of your own head while setting max gross loads with your crew being hands-on—there’s a lot of pressure,” says Hutchings. “Having a calm, relaxed demeanor not only helps you, the pilot, but keeps your crew calm as well. Often, this is easier said than done.”

Columbia’s crews typically use 200-ft. lines (plus rigging) for external loads, meaning the pilot has a unique perspective on the load and the placement site. “It’s a long way down, and it looks and feels like it when you are setting a precision load with that length of line,” Hutchings says. “The longer the line, the more difficult it is to see the visual cues and subtle signs from your ground crew or line person or the environment that you can pick up when using a shorter line.”

He explains that when working with a 200-ft. line, there’s a slight delay from the controls to the load. “You have to exercise patience and wait for the reaction to your input. You really have to trust your crew and their instructions, because from that height, it’s going to be them that’s talking you down and instructing you to ‘hold’ or ‘come down 6 inches,’ etc.”

Longline work is a team effort, says Hutchings. “Always look after and out for your ground crew; they are typically in a precarious position, working under you. You need to look out for them, point out any hazards they may not be aware of, and keep them safe,” he says. “Theirs is a high-­pressure job as well. These guys and gals can make a pilot look good on a tough job!”

Ground and Air Operations

Type 3 helicopters, such as this AS350 B3, perform myriad jobs on utility projects, including carrying sling loads from staging areas. (Valard Construction Photo)

Depending on location and other variables, projects of the scale of the Watay Project require extensive planning, surveys, and permitting processes that can take months or years. Once the project is ready to begin, clearing the 130-ft. right-of-way starts. Workers using feller bunchers (harvesters used in logging) remove the sellable timber and use bulldozers to clear brush and smaller trees. Crews take additional care around riparian zones, minimizing disruption to lakes, ponds, streams, and wetlands.

Once sections of right-of-way are ready, construction can begin. This is when helicopter activity really starts to pick up. The helicopters on the Watay Project work in sections, often hopscotching each other. Rotorcraft will bring compressors, generators, and earth-moving equipment to help prepare the base for each tower.

Once the base is ready, a Super Puma carries to each site steel-lattice, guyed V towers at the end of a longline. With the pilot flying the load from above, ground crews move the tower into position, then attach the guy lines. While the Super Puma retrieves the next tower, the ground crews move to the next site.

Two ground crews often work together to set the towers, jumping past one another to keep the flight operations as efficient as possible. Other ground crews may follow, adjusting and tightening the guy wires to straighten the towers and prepare them for line stringing using the sock lines.

Working in Northwestern Ontario in the summer means a long day. That provides opportunities to accomplish more work but also means tired pilots and maintenance personnel. “Sunrise comes around 5 to 5:30 each morning,” says Brown. “We hold our daily safety meeting, then try to get skids and wheels up around 6 am. We run 14-hour duty days, but we shut down for level checks and other maintenance inspections around noon. We have a fatigue management plan in place, so we want to make sure the crews are properly rested.”

A pilot’s perspective of what a load and landing zone look like at the Volo Mission training site. A pilot’s input on flight controls takes time to reach the load. (Volo Mission Photo)

Once the flight day ends, the maintenance shift begins. Each aircraft on the Watay Project is required to have on-site at least one licensed aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) to oversee maintenance on that aircraft. Hangars are a rare luxury, and maintenance is typically conducted in the open, in all conditions: rain, wind, snow, and heat. Lights assist the maintenance crews with seeing their work but also tend to attract insects.

The maintenance crews work from large trailers or vans that carry tools, spare parts, maintenance manuals, maintenance record books, and consumables. Spare parts must be carried or ordered as necessary, with delivery times added into scheduling. Maintenance crews often help with refueling, with fuel another item that must be ordered.

Winter adds another challenge: cold weather. Pilots and maintenance crews must protect themselves, as well as the aircraft, from the harshest conditions. “Last winter, it got down to 44 degrees below zero centigrade [-47.2 Fahrenheit],” says Brown. “Most aircraft have limitations that prevent the aircraft from flying at minus 30 centigrade. It was so cold that some of the steel teeth on a loader trying to dig into the ground shattered.”

Let There Be Light … and Heat

Near Belen, New Mexico, an MD Helicopters MD 500E operated by Rotor Power pulls a sock line during construction of a line of transmission towers. (HAI/Mark Bennett Photo)

When crews finish the Watay Project—which is currently scheduled for completion in mid-2024—residents of the 17 communities will be connected to the power grid, no longer relying on diesel-powered generators. Connection to the grid will help First Nations improve their communities’ living conditions, infrastructure, health care, use of modern technology, and ability to pursue economic development opportunities.

For the helicopter crews on the project, it simply means moving on to the next camp, the next project. As populations expand and everything from cars to aircraft require more electricity, the work of a utility helicopter operation is seldom finished.

“I really enjoy all kinds of tower work,” says Hutchings. “Once you start flying these types of jobs, it puts the hook into you, and then you’re always looking for that new challenge, whether it’s a new type of load, new environment or terrain, or new ways to use mechanical advantage to make a job safer or more efficient. It’s a very satisfying feeling to have built and set something; it keeps you wanting more. I highly recommend it.”


Share the Story
Dan Sweet

Dan Sweet

Dan Sweet is HAI's director of public relations and communications. Dan can be reached at [email protected].