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Article updated: 7/1/2013 12:59 PM

ComEd's aerial team has high-wire job

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It's called riding the lightning.

That's the term some use for the job done by an elite group of ComEd linemen who work 130 feet above the ground alongside live wires carrying as much as 765,000 volts of electricity.


Stepping off the skid of a helicopter hovering inches away from those wires is part of the routine. For one brief moment, there's nothing but empty air beneath their feet until they clamp their safety harnesses onto an electrical transmission tower and get to work.

These are the conditions the six members of ComEd's aerial specialist group face when repairing or replacing parts on the 28,000 electrical transmission towers strung across the suburbs.

Any mistake could be their last. Yet the group has an impeccable safety record with no injuries since its creation in 2010. Previously, ComEd hired contractors to do the work, and it still uses the same company, Haverfield Aviation Inc. of Gettysburg, Pa., for the delicate job of flying the helicopter.

Working in three-man teams, the aerial specialist group goes aloft only if the weather is nearly perfect.

The work begins long before the helicopter transports the workers to a transmission tower or lifts a single replacement part. Many others must be notified in advance, including, in one recent case, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, on whose land the transmission towers were located; security at ComEd's parent company, Exelon; the ComEd operations staff that manages the grid; the DuPage County sheriff's office; and the closest trauma center.

GPS coordinates also were sent to the 911 operator so an ambulance, if needed, could find the helicopter landing zone in an emergency, said Terence R. Donnelly, ComEd executive vice president and chief operating officer.

All of ComEd's overhead electricians are trained in first aid and CPR skills.

Mike Jones of South suburban Manhattan knows the risks and says he concentrates on safety when he's on a transmission tower. On the job for 24 years, he's been a member of the aerial specialist group for since its inception three years ago.

On this day, five members of the aerial specialist group, including the helicopter pilot and Mike McClintock of Plainfield on the ground, are working on Line 11124 near a bike path in Wayne.

Jones, Ron Kellett of Rockford and Ken Myers of Lee are set to work on the towers.

Even though the power lines have been de-energized, the line still has a static charge that can pack a punch. Kellett steps out of the helicopter and pauses on the skid, then pulls a steel wand about 3 feet long from the belly of the helicopter and slowly approaches the de-energized wire to make the first connection.

As he approaches the wire, an arc forms between him and the line, leaving his body with the same charge as the lines around him and allowing him to work safely. As much as 25 percent of the time, a worker will get a shock that feels a little stronger than a carpet shock, according to a ComEd spokeswoman. Other times, the workers feel static electricity on the back of their necks or backs, Jones said.

Now, Kellett can touch the lines safely wearing protective equipment. Along with special gloves, each crew member wears coveralls made of flame-resistant Nomax and stainless steel to protect against static shocks.

While the work is being done there are no power disruptions on the ComEd grid to anyone in the suburbs. The aerial specialist group can complete work on as many as five towers a day.

Pilot Brian Anderson, 33, of Joliet has been a contractor for ComEd for four years. In his black helicopter he flies within a few feet of the towers to deliver the workers, then threads ladders laden with tools through the wires to the men.

What comes next is a 300-pound string of glass insulators, which are being installed to replace older porcelain insulators.

As the men work, Anderson relies on two-way radios, hand and arm signals and head bobs to communicate with them. The operation draws a lot of attention from curious onlookers on the ground.

All members of the aerial specialist team are required to train first on land. Apprentices train for about three years before they can work on live lines in the field. Crew members also practice on outdoor mock equipment before working on the actual infrastructure.

Admission to the aerial specialist team is based on seniority. Once in, members focus on aerial work but -- if the weather isn't optimal -- also get assigned to traditional line work using bucket trucks or other means to access lines.

The job is romanticized in songs like Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman," which describes the loneliness of the job. The lyric "singing in the wire" refers to sonic vibration caused by wind blowing across the wires and conductors, making the wires whistle.

A feature-length documentary, "Storm Soldiers," produced by Hubbell Power Systems Inc. partnered with Tytan Creates, is slated for release this summer about linemen's work.

On this particular workday the team keeps the safety record intact. Done with their work, the three men sit close together atop a transmission tower, waiting to be picked up.

Kellett is the first one off the tower and into the helicopter, then Jones and Myers climb in for a smooth two-minute, open-door ride back to the landing zone.

Their safety clips make a metallic ping as they unhook from the helicopter after touchdown.

Jones gives a fist-bump to Anderson, the pilot, then to another team member as he heads back to the work trailer, done for the day.

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