Fortitude at Altitude (or, “You think your job is hard?”)

A week or so ago, I was returning home in the truck when I spotted a helicopter hovering at what I guessed to be about a half mile from our house. There was a long line suspended from the bottom of the aircraft with something attached to the end. As I turned onto the road that leads into our neighborhood, the helicopter ceased hovering and began to move the same direction I was driving. I briefly lost sight of it behind some trees.

As I came around a bend, it came back into view. It was now hovering over one of the power transmission line towers belonging to the LCRA that march in a row just outside the southern border of our neighborhood. To my amazement, there was a man perched at the top of said tower, and he appeared to be attempting to snag the line hanging down from the aircraft.

You’re no doubt surprised that I stopped and began videoing the scene. Here’s what I witnessed.

It’s hard to tell from the video but the worker appeared to be removing something from the top of the tower and placing it in a pouch. The last three minutes of the video (which I took with a video camera zoomed all the way in, hence the shaky picture), also appears to show that the worker is focused on the point where the “shield wire” is attached to the tower. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve since learned that a shield wire is installed on overhead electrical transmission lines to protect them from lightning strikes. For more information, here’s a short “how does it work?” article about shield lines.

If this process looks dangerous, well, it certainly can be. In August, 2013, two men were killed in West Texas when the line they were suspended from while servicing power transmission towers snapped because the helicopter pilot failed to see the shield wire. The men fell 200 feet to the ground.

I recognize this is somewhat macabre, but out of curiosity, I wondered about the elapsed time and terminal velocity from a 200′ fall. According to this table (PDF), it’s 3.5 seconds and 60 mph. Both are awful to contemplate.

The work being done in the video shows a very deliberate, well-planned process, and demonstrates good teamwork between the tower worker and the helicopter pilot. If you watch closely, you can see the hand signals from the worker telling the pilot that (1) he’s ready to be picked up, and (2) he’s safely attached to the line and ready to be lifted off the tower.

I doubt there are many of us who would be comfortable doing work like this, where a minor equipment failure or a momentary lapse in attention means the difference between life and death. On the other hand, you’ve got a fantastic view of some of the prettiest scenery in Texas, and that’s not nothing.