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Utility Wire Helicopter Crashes

Utility Wire Helicopter Crashes

Utility Wire Helicopter Crashes

Utility Wire Helicopter Crashes

Our law firm has handled many utility wire helicopter crashes over the years

Helicopters are being used increasingly in the utilities industry for the inspection and maintenance of their transmission lines. That industry is also using helicopter crews to collect data for system quality and for transmission line maintenance planning. These utilities also use helicopters for line inspections, stringing wire, setting poles and for placing crews and equipment in areas otherwise inaccessible.

This flight mission brings the helicopter in close proximity to horizontally strung utility lines or telephone wires. These are typically difficult for helicopter pilots to see and are especially hazardous to a helicopter. Many crashes have resulted from the helicopter pilot’s inadvertent flight into wires. Utility companies routinely hire private helicopter operators to inspect these lines or wires. Some utilities have begun purchasing and operating their own helicopters. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority currently owns and operates seven helicopters.

Flying a helicopter in a low altitude environment where wires are present requires a degree of skill which is more complex and demanding than other types of helicopter flying. Nothing about the common helicopter flight mission experience prepares pilots for operating in that wire environment. There is no FAA examination of a helicopter pilot for proficiency or competency flying a helicopter in a wire environment such as in the course of conducting utility line inspections.

A number of specific safety precautions can be undertaken to dramatically reduce the incidents of helicopter wire strike. Wire Strike Protection Systems (WSPS) provide some measure of protection from inadvertent flight into horizontally strung wires but only where the helicopter strikes the wires while flying on a straight and level path. Pilots must know and understand the limitations of any WSPS installed on their helicopter.

Various devices have been marketed which purport to provide wire strike protection in the event the helicopter flies into utility wires or cables. Such WSPS equipment consists of an upper cutter or scissor-like blade placed along the front of the helicopter’s nose in an upward angle and a lower cutter angled downward and affixed below the nose. These cutters are intended to guide any contacted wire to a jaw area which contains sharp saw-like blades.

Unfortunately, such systems provide only limited protection as the helicopter must be flying straight and level upon contact and they provide potential protection only from frontal strikes against horizontally strung wires. Where such a system had been installed on a helicopter and fails to provide an appropriate measure of protection against a wire strike, the manufacturer of such devices has been sued on theories of misrepresentation, fraud and design defect. In such a scenario, counsel must assess the specific warranties and representations made by the seller to determine whether they overpromised the degree of protection to be afforded.

Various devices have been marketed which purport to provide wire strike protection in the event the helicopter flies into utility wires or cables. Such WSPS equipment consists of an upper cutter or scissor-like blade placed along the front of the helicopter’s nose in an upward angle and a lower cutter angled downward and affixed below the nose. These cutters are intended to guide any contacted wire to a jaw area which contains sharp saw-like blades.

Unfortunately, such systems provide only limited protection as the helicopter must be flying straight and level upon contact and they provide potential protection only from frontal strikes against horizontally strung wires. Where such a system had been installed on a helicopter and fails to provide an appropriate measure of protection against a wire strike, the manufacturer of such devices has been sued on theories of misrepresentation, fraud and design defect. In such a scenario, counsel must assess the specific warranties and representations made by the seller to determine whether they overpromised the degree of protection to be afforded.

For any utility wire inspection mission the helicopter pilot should not take on the added workload of flying the helicopter and inspecting wires. A separate spotter or observer should be tasked solely with the responsibility of inspecting wires leaving the pilot devoted to flight responsibilities.

Helicopter safety organizations such as Helicopter Association International (HAI) offer specific training sessions on wire strike avoidance. These sessions are taught by highly experienced helicopter pilots and provide tips and strategies for spotting and avoiding horizontally strung wires. These sessions include such lessons as understanding the configuration of utility poles and being aware of residential dwellings and other buildings which may be presumed to be supplied with electricity and, hence, connected by wire.

Stricter guidelines should be imposed on utility companies which operate in the vicinity of airports or known aircraft flight paths. These utility companies should be required to place marker balls on all utility wires in known flight paths so that they may be visible to helicopters routinely flying at low altitude.

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