On a sun-splashed day under a cloudless, blue sky a crew member carefully lifts open the hanger door to unveil the shiny helicopter with a new prized possession on its nose.

A brand-new camera with thermal and ultraviolet sensors will be key in inspecting more than 4,000 miles of high voltage distribution lines.

Several hours of surveying land about 30 miles southeast of the Jackson County Airport is ahead of the crew. An all-terrain vehicle slowly pulls the chopper to a safe place for takeoff.

Warmer temperatures and higher visibility on this day make for a safer flight, and the patrols are making a difference. Last year, due to the helicopter patrols of our high voltage distribution line system we saved about 154,000 customers from experiencing an outage, which equates to about 27 million minutes of outage time.

Behind the Scenes

Dozens of hours of behind the scenes work go into making the trip a safe reality for the three-person crew searching for high voltage  downed wires or damage to poles including insulators, cross arms and cutout switches.

High voltage line outages affect 25 times more customers per incident than low voltage line outages, making it a primary focus for this crew and the rest of our reliability team.

“There is a lot of preparation to get ready for every patrol we do,” said Tommy Webb, Senior Engineer Tech Analyst and helicopter crew member. “We have had this program in place since the 1970s, and my predecessor taught us the best, most efficient way to do this is to plan properly so that we all come home safe to our families after each trip.”

Webb plans, records and reports all flight and inspections conducted around the state.

“This can be in the helicopter or on the ground inspecting hundreds of miles of deemed no-fly zones,” he said. “The helicopter allows us to respond quickly and effectively to outages, cutting the response and restoration times down for our customers. We potentially save tens of thousands of customer outage hours by identifying anomalies and detrimental problems to the system before they fail. I enjoy what I do because I genuinely feel like I make a difference.”

With fallen trees or broken limbs a leading cause of outages, the crew also helps identify areas where tree trimming might be necessary. We are investing more than $500 million over the next five years to make sure our customers have reliable service by keeping our overhead lines clear.

Christine Bannan, a Senior Engineer Tech Analyst also on the helicopter crew, said a safety tailboard kicks off every morning at 5:30 a.m. and a post-job brief ends their day at 5:30 p.m.

“We are constantly trying to find ways to do our job safer and more efficiently,” said Bannan. “And the end result is keeping the lights on for the customers that we serve.”

Peculiar Problem

Last year, Bannan and the crew were doing a routine flyover when they were asked by dispatch to find the cause of an outage.

It didn’t take them long to pinpoint the problem: a conductor in – of all places – a pond.

“We saw lineworkers with boots on the ground and at first they weren’t very close to the source of the issue,” she said. “We pointed out where it was located.”

An issue that could’ve taken hours or days only took minutes to identify and fix, she said.

“Working as a team in situations like that helps us fix the problem quicker rather than leaving customers without power for many hours or even days,” she said. “The helicopter has definitely been a great source to help us with our reliability efforts.”

Working for the Reliability Cause

While the crew is an important part of our reliability future, they are far from alone. We have many people behind the scenes creating and executing emergent technology we could only dream of a decade ago.

We have about 30 licensed drone operators who also help inspect our lines, including 400 miles of lines the helicopter crew can’t get to for a variety of reasons, primarily in urban areas.

Webb admits that his job, while challenging dealing with unknown things like the weather, has its perks.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s really cool,” he said. “But it’s a job that requires attention to detail and focus, that at times, can be super serious, intense and challenging.”

Webb said he appreciates all the teams that are coming together to support the reliability cause.

“Everyone has their role, we know the importance of working together to help our customers get the reliable service that they depend on us for every day,” Webb said. “Whether it’s a mom- and-pop store or restaurant or big industry, everyone deserves the best reliable service that we can provide.”

Watch our team in action:

Check out a related news story that aired last year.