Flying High withAEP

Words and pictures by Kathleen Davis, associate editor

I got the call that the weather would work to fly the next day as I left an evening showing of “Iron Man” around 9 p.m. with a friend. It was hot, but it was finally dry. As we exited the theater, my cell phone began to sing: It was American Electric Power (AEP) ringing to give me the “thumbs up.”

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We’d been working on scheduling my “ride along” with AEP during their spring aerial line inspections_or a small portion of it_for weeks. But, before that clear and warm May evening, the weather was not cooperating. It has been the wettest spring ever recorded in Tulsa, and that’s saying something for a region of the state already referred to, in normal rainfall years, as “Green Country.” But, finally, the weather gods opened a window.

False Start

I was at the Richard L. Jones/Riverside airport in Tulsa the following morning at 7:30 a.m. Unfortunately, I was waiting at the incorrect hangar and had to be “talked in” by Roger Moore, senior transmission coordinator for the Tulsa region of AEP, who was waiting at the correct hangar while I sat in the wrong spot on the tarmac and marveled at a school bus driving nonchalantly through the industrial airplane hangers as if cruising a suburban neighborhood.


Roger Moore with AEP (left) and John Buchanan with Helicopters Southwest (right) pose for a post-flight snapshot.Click here to enlarge image

I made it to the correct hangar as the pilot, John Buchanan with Helicopters Southwest, finished the morning gas-up. He pointed out all the features_both safety and industrial-on his very shiny Bell JetRanger helicopter. I’ve been all over the world on commercial flights, but I admit to never having stepped foot into a helicopter. So, this was a real treat.

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The JetRanger had one specific adaptation for this line inspection gig-a great big white ball attached to the front housing a Sony camera for the visual inspection. Inside, John would run the video feed (and fly) while Roger would “eyeball” each individual tower and line and make notations (both in writing and on his computer) about potential problems. Roger brought along a Dell computer equipped with a GPS software system to make accurate notations of locations with a nice green dot on the screen.

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As we climbed into the helicopter, the little green dot showed up solidly in the middle of the helipad at Christensen Aviation, Jones Airport, Jenks, Oklahoma (a Southern suburb of Tulsa). But, both us and that dot were about ready to move.

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We began tracking our first line just outside the airport at the Riverside substation. The Riverside-Kendrick line is a large 345-kV transmission corridor that runs from Tulsa to a tiny little Lincoln County town in the middle of the state called Kendrick (population 138 at the last official census in 2000). We hovered almost directly over each tower as Roger made his visual inspection_eyeing insulators and static wires, noting each one with a practiced eye.

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Throughout the whole flight I noticed that some towers actually had numbers posted on top of them, just for this sort of inspection. With the Riverside-Kendrick route, however, those numbers were inaccurate (due to a change in the origin of the line a few years ago).

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“The towers are off, but the computer’s accurate,” Roger noted. And the computer being accurate is key.

Liftoff

They filmed slowly, inspecting with great care, even circling back once or twice to look again at a specific tower. Just a few miles into the trip, Roger found a tower where the static wires were down_a problem that required an immediate fix (and which he called in as soon as we landed for lunch later that morning).

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Roger noted insulators that were “shot out” along the way as well, as I marveled at the range of things one can find in a right-of-way. It seems that adjacent landowners aren’t shy about dumping junk in the area under transmission towers, or building deer stands for hunting. One gentleman seemed to be growing a small amount of corn or milo (it’s hard to tell the specific crop this early in the year). I asked Roger if AEP knocks on doors to ask people to clear out those deer stands and small crops.

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“Only if it’s a ‘cash crop,’ “he replied. “Most of the rest of this stuff won’t get tall enough or be enough of an issue to cause problems. We try to work with landowners, and, sometimes, working with them means giving them a little leeway.”

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Of course, there are times that leeway isn’t given. That cash crop he mentioned_specifically the cultivation of marijuana_is something that will get called in. The second issue that will get a landowner in hot water is threatening the helicopter.

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John and Roger spoke of one old story involving a landowner and his “show donkeys.” Apparently, the helicopter flying over set those show donkeys running, spooked them to high heaven. But, rather than calming the donkeys and reminding himself that these flyovers only happen a couple of times a year, the owner called up the utility and threatened to shoot down the helicopter that was scaring his prize pets.

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Threatening to shoot down the helicopter will get you into trouble faster than anything, as he found out. But, most landowners are allowed to treat the right-of-way as their own, as long as the use doesn’t interfere with normal AEP operations.

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“The right-of-way looks very good along this route,” Roger noted for the recording, and it did-wide swaths of clear path with the towers and wires quite open and visible as we flew above them, but the same could not be said of the second line we traced.

Old Towers Mean Old Problems

The Riverside-Kendrick line featured nice steel towers, but our second line of the day wasn’t quite so lucky. The Okemah-Weleetka corridor (both very tiny towns) featured wood structures holding a 69-kV line.

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Pecan trees encroaching the right-of-way, woodpecker holes, X braces broken and loose hardware were just a few of the problems recorded. It seems that the wooden poles were quite a bit more problematic than the steel, and by far their worst issue with the wood had one single name: the woodpecker.

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“Woodpeckers are our worst enemy out here,” Roger noted. “They can hollow out a portion of the pole and leave little to no trace of the interior damage on the outside of the pole.”

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One right-of-way in the area sported a shooting range, and both John and Roger worried about the tower insulators. But, luckily, the surrounding ones were allin place and looked as if they had not yet been considered for target practice.

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“Thank God for that,” Roger said.

At this point, we’d been flying a couple of hours, noting problems and issues with the lines, having set down the helicopter only once, next to a golf course in a small town that featured a grass-strip airport, in order to clean the bugs off the camera with Turtle Wax. (That was John’s job. Roger and I stayed in the helicopter.)

A 138-kV line from Weleetka to Okmulgee was the third line we followed, and the final leg of the trip involved tracing another 138-kV line back toward the Riverside substation, starting in the town of Okmulgee. Roger noted that this line had been replaced with steel poles three or so years ago, which looked, from the air, like a brilliant idea (but quite a feat of engineering). That particular line ran through what can only be properly termed a swamp. To fix any potential large issue in this area would require AEP to put a truck on a swamp boat and then tow the swamp boat into the area, which didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. Luckily, being steel, most of the structures had absolutely no issues, just a bit of vegetation encroachment here and there.

The trip gave all of us a marvelous view of some magnificent AEP transmission engineering, as well as a fabulous view of the green and lush Oklahoma countryside. I admit that I wasn’t all business. I wasn’t all about getting good tower shots, although I like to think I got a few stellar ones (take a look at the photos included here). I also took some fabulous landscapes, watched deer run through the woods, enjoyed a coyote or two and marveled at a few of the most interesting views from the air_glimpses of the personal and “private” issues that some landowners think are their own little secrets (like that guy quite obviously raising roosters for cockfighting: We saw you).

From the air, you can see all, and you can hide nothing. For that reason, it makes perfect sense to trace your power lines by helicopter, getting all the issues out into the open.

And I’m thankful that Roger and John were nice enough to take me along on a lovely May morning to get a firsthand look at how those inspections work.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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