Aerial tree trimmers fly through Rock County

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, March 22, 2014

TOWN OF FULTON—Imagine this: A saw with ten 25-inch rotating blades run by a 28-horsepower motor.

Now, imagine that saw attached to a 90-foot vertical boom.

Next, dangle the boom-saw combination from a helicopter.

Finally, try to imagine flying the helicopter within 50 feet of 345,000-volt transmission lines with all the saw blades spinning and the boom swaying in the wind.

On Saturday, pilots from Aerial Solutions, a North Carolina-based company that specializes in such work, was in Rock County trimming trees along American Transmission Co. power lines.

Every five years,  ATC trims trees in the power lines' 150-foot right-of-way. The trimming is designed to keep the trees a safe distance from the lines, explained Adam Helminiak, ATC senior vegetation management specialist. 

On the  ground, the company also conducts brush clearing and tries to establish native grasses—which are easier to manage than invasive plants such as buckthorn and shrub honeysuckles.

Saturday's spectacle, however, was all up in the air.

From a rural cul-de-sac near the Rock River, people watched as the helicopter traveled down the line of trees. The helicopter operator would start with a line at the top of the trees, then make a second or third pass to sheer off mid-range and lower branches.

After about 90 minutes of work, the helicopter landed in a field of corn stubble a hundred yards or so away from the line. The saw and boom are gently laid down in a straight line, with the  helicopter coming to rest behind.

While a technician refilled the saw's gas engine, residents—drawn from their breakfast tables by the noise and activity—took photos and video.

The helicopter's take-off was just as graceful as its landing.

Cleeve Cox, head pilot and president of Ariel Solutions, said the job was “like anything else”—as though running a 10-bladed saw next to a 345,000-volt power line was comparable to, say, working at the library's checkout desk.

The company requires potential pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time, followed by another six months to a year of training before going to work.

“One of the most difficult things to learn how to do is draw a line in the trees, to read the right-of-way,” Cox said.

The helicopters have a special bubble in their pilot's side windows that allow them their operators to lean out over the ground.

Pilots also have to consider factors as diverse as wind direction and tree type. 

Helminiak said using Aerial Solutions is faster and more efficient than hiring ground crews to trim trees.

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