"Got the wires?" "Got em" High Tension Wires Continue To Be Helicopter Killers!
As a young deputy I was getting my first opportunity to go for a flight in one of our ASTREA patrol helicopters. The purpose of the flight was to get some aerial photos of a crime scene. The pilot had landed in an open field near our semi-rural patrol station. As the helicopter skids left the ground, the pilot started talking to me in a way that I thought was kind of strange. It went something like "Ok a little left pedal, a little left cyclic, and we're going to go up and over those wires right there." At the time I wasn't quite sure why he was telling me this, but I thought "OK".
If you were to climb in the back seat of one of our patrol helicopters today, and go on a patrol flight with us, you would here similar talk between the two crew members. While we don't necessarily verbalize every control input, there are certain things that we do verbalize every time. Flying over or in the area of high tension wires is one of those times. When approaching wires, one member of the crew will call them out and the other member will acknowledge them. It goes something like this, "coming up on the wires", "got the wires". You might also here "crossing on the pole", or like one of our pilots likes to say "adding a couple hundred extra feet for the wife & kids."
What we are practicing here is basic CRM, "Cockpit Resource Management" or "Crew Resource Management" whichever term you prefer. All pilots are familiar with the concept.
For us, verbally calling out every set of high tension wires, every time we fly over or near them is part of a disciplined approach to identifying hazards to flight. In addition it continuously reminds us where every set of high tension wires in the county are located, particularly along some of our standard flight paths.
No one likes to talk about the mistakes of dead pilots. But talk about them we must in order to learn and hopefully prevent ourselves from ever making the same fatal mistake(s). The fiery crash of a Bell 206 helicopter with 4 souls on board, near Auberry Ca. earlier this month is a sad reminder of the dangers of high tension wires. But there is a little more to this crash than simply flying along and not seeing the wires, or not knowing they were there. One must read the NTSB preliminary report carefully to see what I am referring to.
In this case, "crossing on the pole" would almost assuredly have saved the lives of the pilot and the 3 Fish & Game wildlife biologist who were passengers on the helicopter. If you can envision two towers with a span of high tension wires between them, you would see that the high tension wires have at least some droop to them. The greater the span, the greater the droop. But in this case there is a smaller lighter wire running from the top of each tower to the opposite tower. These wires are often much harder to see, and do not have the same droop as the heavier wires. In this case the Bell 206 came down a canyon in straight and level flight over the top of the drooped high tension wires, but apparently did not see the smaller ground wire running between the tops of the two towers. There is little doubt as to what occurred as the crash was witnessed by two USFS law enforcement officers who were in the area.
Every year in America you can count on one or two low flying helicopters, following freeways during bad weather and often at night, crashing into high tension power lines. The result is always the same, a fiery crash onto the freeway.
Whether you are an LE pilot, civilial pilot, future pilot, or even a passenger in a helicopter calling out wires, knowing their locations along your flight path, and even knowing a little bit about them may very well save your life one day.
Remember, altitude is your friend & "got the wires."