By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer
DOYLESTOWN: A new way to trim trees near high-power transmission lines came to the Akron area on Monday.
Pilot Henrik Björklund maneuvered his MD500 helicopter carrying an 800-pound, 10-blade saw at the end of an 80-foot boom to trim large trees along FirstEnergy Corp.’s right of way in Doylestown.
In the Doylestown area, the 345,000-volt transmission lines are among the electric company’s most powerful. Crews keep trees trimmed within 75 feet of both sides of the lines in a five-year maintenance rotation, along with yearly aerial inspections, said Rebecca Spach, FirstEnergy’s manager of transmission vegetation.
Trimming with the helicopter saw extends the cycles for regrowth for 10 years, she said.
The helicopter saw is a quicker and more manageable way to get to some hard-to-reach areas, said Spach. Crews usually need to use bucket trucks equipped with saws or have workers climb trees to cut limbs, she said.
Björklund, who flies the helicopter solo while leaning his head out of the cockpit for better views, compared the maneuvering to “like a pen on a string. The way you move the helicopter is how you move the saw.”
As Björklund clears the trees from the air, a ground crew of FirstEnergy and Asplundh workers communicate with him and close roadways he might be near. Neighbors and property owners are notified ahead of time that the helicopter saw will be used, said FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin.
Still, there can be some panicked calls to area police departments about the hovering helicopter with the loud, dangling saws, said Durbin.
“There’s times they get frantic calls saying ‘there’s a saw in the air,’ ” said Durbin. “This is just a much more effective technology.”
The technology has been in use for a while, but FirstEnergy just started using it in the Toledo and Southern Ohio areas last year, said Durbin.
The helicopter saws were used quite extensively in Allegheny Energy’s more mountainous terrain, so when the companies merged, that was a benefit, said Durbin.
“People will be seeing this more and more in Ohio,” he said. The helicopter saw will make its way toward Canton and Geauga County in suburban Cleveland on this go-around.
However, the helicopter saw will mostly be used in more rural spaces and not in urban areas, said Spach.
Spach said the helicopter saw can do about 10 to 12 miles of work in a week. It usually takes Björklund a few passes through an area to complete the work.
Spach said the helicopter saw saves about three times the work of bucket crews or crews who have to climb trees.
Across FirstEnergy’s seven-state territory, about 1,000 miles of trees near high-power lines will be trimmed using the helicopter saw this year. That’s out of a total of 20,000 miles of transmission lines.
Björklund works for contractor Rotor Blade, based in South Carolina, which specializes in airborne vegetation management. He said he usually stays in the air about an hour.
Asplundh crews take the cut-down vegetation and either mulch it or drag it into the forest, depending on a landowner’s preference.
Björklund knows his job is unusual. “Not everyone wants to do it, either, since it’s so intimidating and demanding,” he said.