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Train the Trainer 101: Practical Aviation for Power-Line Applications

It was a little over 40 years ago that a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot in Florida made the first live-line contact with a live transmission circuit, bringing a quantum leap for power-line applications using helicopter methods. The FAA regulates what they call “rotorcraft” work with specific qualifications for pilots, flight crews and the airships and auxiliary equipment used.

Many utilities and contractors think helicopters – or HCs, in flyers’ lingo – are for use on difficult projects because of the expense. But I have been working with contractors for the last 15 years who recognize the value of HCs in construction and use them as often as possible. An hour of HC time may cost the same as the monthly rental of a bucket truck, but when you can clip, space, dame and ball 20 times the structures in a day over bucket access, the expense really makes sense. I also am aware that some contractors and utilities think HC use raises risk. I know that some utility clients prohibit HCs on their properties while others actively assist their contractors by prequalifying HC companies.

The primary use of HCs has been to string rope or, in some cases, hard-line for pulling wire in transmission construction using HC blocks. These blocks are equipped with a spring-loaded gate at the top of the frame. The gate has extensions that guide the rope into the sheave, provided the pilot is good enough. It looks easier than it is. Since Mike Kurtgis of USA Airmobile put his ship on a hot line in Florida, skid and rope-suspended work, inspection and insulator washing have continued to advance as accepted work practices. The FAA refers to working from a skid or rope (short haul) as “human external load,” or HEL. By some it is called the most dangerous work method in the line industry. In fact, even the FAA has a sense of humor about it, as noted in their wording of a safety requirement in the HEL rules. In guidance document FSIMS 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 51, the FAA provides examples of the types of persons that can be carried on an HC skid – they include movie camera operators and clowns as two of those examples. We always assumed that the lineman with the nerve to work from the skid was not the camera operator.

It turns out that HEL is not as dangerous as some believe, and that clearly was the conclusion in a wide-ranging, FAA-commissioned study – titled “A Human Factors Perspective on Human External Loads” – conducted by the University of Oklahoma in 1998 (see The study’s researchers found that there were no identified trends or safety issues. In fact, the research suggested that by most measures, the HC work reduced incidents by moving the work from more precarious work positions to safer HEL access. HEL access eliminated much of the climbing and wire-suspended cart work that contributed to incidents and injuries. Across 24 years of data – from 1973 to 1996 – only nine accidents were documented that involved HELs. More significantly, only two of those nine accidents occurred during authorized HEL operations. That means that of the nine HEL accidents over 24 years, seven of those operations were not authorized by the FAA regulations. Obviously, the balance in frequency of use has changed over the intervening years, with improved claiming rules and the expansion of HEL. It is still obvious to any reader that if an HC in the air has a problem, the results can be devastating. For that reason, airworthiness, training and credentials are important, and the FAA has laid out the safety requirements very clearly.

As to the rules, any user of an HC service should expect that the vendor is compliant, but safety professionals should still be aware of the FAA requirements and regulations that must be followed by the flyer. Those of us who have engaged pilots for HC work find them to be consummate professionals who have great respect for safety. However, there are still those who will take a shortcut for the opportunity to make a few extra bucks. I was a personal witness to an incident where a vendor was short a qualified pilot, so he brought one in who he thought he could sneak by provided we didn’t ask for his credentials. Well, we didn’t – not until he flew a pole into an energized 69 line. The rules that address both external loads (EL) and HEL are found in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 133 (FAR 133). Just recently, the FAA published a long overdue advisory circular – 133-1B – effective May 31, 2017. The circular is comprehensive and detailed guidance for FAR 133, covering all types of EL operations, qualifications, certifications and operations for the industry. These rules require documented flying experience and training of the pilots that fly ELs, and a senior pilot at the flying company who is in charge of all credentials and safety operations. The rules also have certain requirements for the HCs used as well as the equipment used on them. The company must have an approved EL and HEL safety manual that complies with the FAR 133 requirements. The HC pilot flying the ELs is required to have a preflight safety conference with his ground crew and perform training as necessary to ensure the safety of the operation. The pilot also must complete a test flight of the loads to feel the effect on his aircraft and ensure it can handle the load.

Over the years we have learned that crews may be a little intimidated by pilots, but everyone needs to rid that emotion from the relationship. A good professional pilot will be very cooperative with crews, particularly with regard to their safety. If the pilot is not, you should seek a different one. When it comes to safety, there is no room for cowboys on line crews or HCs.

Leading a Successful HC Project
I have learned some things throughout the years that may help to make your HC construction project successful. Following are some items to consider prior to the execution of your fly projects.

There is no rule that you have to qualify your HC contractor or its pilots, unless you count OSHA’s expectation that you, as the employer, ensure a safe workplace. Your HC contractor will be glad to work with you to provide everything you need to ensure the contractor is properly certified, that the airships are airworthy and properly maintained, and that the pilots are credentialed and experienced.

Your HC contractor should be ready to provide you with pilot licenses; rotorcraft EL operator certificate with the appropriate certification for the rotorcraft and rotorcraft/load combination listed; a rotorcraft/load combination flight manual; the pilot’s commercial or airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for the rotorcraft to be used; credentials for the chief pilot for rotorcraft EL operations, as designated on the rotorcraft EL operator certificate; and the airworthiness certificate for the aircraft and the combination loads approved.

Your HC contractor should have a tailboard or preflight plan, an outline or form that the pilot in charge will use on the job site. Most HC contractors also can provide you with an outline for the training of flight crew – your employees – that will be conducted prior to flying. The last thing you can expect is documentation from the HC contractor about the EL equipment they will use. The documentation will have the manufacturer’s instructions and FAA approvals for EL operations. 

Fly-Hands and Fly-Hand Equipment
For your employees, it is worthwhile to do some inquiry and select fly-hands – designated by the FAA as flight crew – who have experience. If they can describe flight operations, credentialing, safety tailboards and safe flight operation practices along the lines of this article, they have experience. Mix your crews using experienced fly-hands and lineworkers capable of becoming fly-hands so that we continue to train a competent number of fly-hands and lineworkers.

Some fly-hand equipment will be designated and possibly even provided by the HC contractor. Flight helmets with radios often are provided by the pilot for skid work. When radios are not used for communication between the pilot and fly-hands, a detailed set of hand or head movements is determined prior to flight. In most cases, it is required that ground crew observers and the pilot are in radio contact. The advent of voice-activated technology has made wireless communications more dependable, and thus more helmets are coming so equipped. It is not practical to have a wired radio for short-haul work or even skid work, as the wire gets in the way. If you have seen line-hands with a big black X taped to the top of their hard hats, it’s likely they were part of a flight crew. The X helps the pilot discern head movements for directional controls during flight. In all cases, conventional hard hats are not appropriate for flight operations. Even with chin straps, they will be blown off. In particular, when the HC is near the ground, a dislodged hard hat can circulate up through the prop, which will disrupt flight stability, if not bring the aircraft down. No pilot will permit anything other than a flight-type helmet with an approved chin strap. Ideally the helmet also will have a flight-rated, flip-up half face shield that the fly-hand will wear with safety glasses. 

The type, function and appurtenances of a fly-hand’s harness are not as critical for platform work as they are for short-haul work. A common protective fall harness is considered appropriate by some for sitting on a platform. The other typical “skid” work, as it is referred to by lineworkers, is standing on a modified platform with the rear attachment of the harness attached to an anchor point on the outside of the HC. The skid work is not actually standing on the skid, which is no longer permitted by the FAA. The lineworker stands on a modified platform attached to the body of the rotorcraft, which is actually above the rotorcraft’s landing skid. The fly-hand leans into the short lanyard attached to the HC so he is at an angle out over the skid. The fly-hand may spend some time suspended in this way and will experience some discomfort if the harness does not have sufficiently wide, cushioned straps. In short-haul work, the fly-hand is suspended below the HC by rope and hook attached to a rated pelvis ring. This attachment can result in circulatory distress pretty quickly if leg straps, seat support and body straps are not sufficiently wide and cushioned. I am aware of a suspended worker who passed out when his harness cut off circulation to his legs and created an embolism that almost killed him. There are a number of high-quality harnesses on the market, typically referred to as “fly-rated” harnesses, that your pilot can recommend for operations.

Fly Project Best Practices
In addition to the above information, the execution of fly projects has some best practices that can help you toward a successful project conclusion.

Pre-Project Lift Tests
Your HC contractor likely has performed the type of work you are about to engage in, but there still are good reasons to meet and do some test lifts. Your pilot should visit the site, plan his flight paths, and check the landing zones and ground operations areas before bringing in the aircraft. The contractor probably will ask to do that, but suggest it if they don’t. Doing the pre-plan will relieve much confusion and prepare ground crews for what to expect on the first day.

For EL operations that move poles or supplies, the first day should be spent familiarizing the ground crews with how the HC equipment works. They need to understand “jettisonable loads” and how being under those loads could be a hazard. The pilot will explain the rules, approach to the HC during idle, hooking up, managing static hazards and flight paths, and characteristics of suspended loads during initial lifts. By the way, regarding static, it can do damage and is a real hazard to ground crews. Humidity changes during the day can create static in the thousands of volts in the afternoon that did not exist in the morning. Your pilot will explain and advise on controls. Typically, the load rope is dropped to the ground to discharge static before the crew touches the hook. With short-haul, the man on the rope will drop a short tag line to the ground before his feet touch in order to discharge static from his body. 

Skid and Short-Haul Preflight Training
Even with experienced hands, setting up a ground-level conductor span for training and testing is a good idea. The pilot will do some flight dynamics testing during liftoff on the first flight to see how his HEL affects his aircraft; he is required to do so. The pilot will welcome the opportunity to do some actual work at a low level in an open space so he can train and judge the capability of the crew on the skid or rope. This also will give you the opportunity to assess the pilot’s flight skills with respect to both command of the aircraft and flying and safety culture. The typical arrangement is a 100-foot span of conductor about 15 feet off the ground. The flight characteristics will be a little different due to ground effects, but those are minimal for the size and downdraft produced by the smaller HCs used for these tasks. Crews can train and practice installing vibration dampers, spacers and enunciator balls here and effectively be observed by crew or safety supervisors before they go aloft for the real thing.

Rotorcraft in power-line applications can be used safely and to great advantage when the user and provider of the service are conscientious and compliant with the federal rules. We welcome reader comments and invite you to share your tips about or experience with HCs in operations, construction and maintenance work.

About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn has devoted the last 20 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a resident subject matter expert for the Incident Prevention Institute. He can be reached at

Editor’s Note: “Train the Trainer 101” is a regular feature designed to assist trainers by making complex technical issues deliverable in a nontechnical format. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Kate Wade at

Safety Management, Train the Trainer 101

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at