What does a lineman do exactly?
It varies – the only constants in our trade are that you’re gonna be attached to a helicopter, you are going to be building and repairing power lines somewhere, and you’re gonna to be doing it a lot. I’m usually home for only a month a year.
What are the highest voltage lines you’ve worked on?
Five hundred thousand volts. ‘Hot’ work like that could be replacing the spacers that keep the lines apart or re-sleeving a damaged line mid-span. If I’m not in a high-risk environment, I’m just not happy. I like being on the chopper in high winds when everything is horribly difficult. Anyone can build power lines in nice weather.
What happens if you accidentally touch a live 500,000-volt line?
I’ve never heard of anyone getting hit with 500,000 volts because safety procedures are extreme, but I’m almost positive you’d explode. On smaller stuff, like 12,000 volts, people will lose arms and legs, or chunks of meat will blow off ’em. That stuff cooks you from the inside. It’ll find a path in and a path out. It kills you when it goes across your heart. But, if it just goes in your elbow and out your finger, you’re probably just gonna lose your arm. Usually it happens from not following the rules. A lapse of concentration can end your life.
So how do you avoid electrocution?
You ‘energise’ the helicopter so it’s at the same voltage as the line you’re working on. Otherwise, you’re violating the phase-to-ground rule. For instance, birds don’t get shocked when they land on a power line but they would die if they stepped off and put one foot on something else. We have two wires connected to the helicopter: the ‘wand’ and the ‘bond’. You stick the wand out as you approach the line and that makes the initial contact – you see 3ft of electricity at the end of your arm. Then you clamp on the bond, which keeps it energised while you work.
What does it feel like?
You wear a ‘hot-suit’ that allows the electricity to flow over you. It’s made of fire-retardant and stainless-steel material and it would be too uncomfortable to work without it. It still tingles like having ants in your suit, though, and sometimes it feels like they’re biting you.
What’s the longest you’ve stayed up there?
I worked for 76 hours straight in one storm, but you can only stay up there for an hour at a time. You really have to work your ass off – it’s your hands moving as fast as they can so you get a rhythm going, and it’s dirty fast. Because if you’re not fast the company’s not gonna keep you.
Can you still be electrocuted without touching the wire?
That’s called ‘waking the dragon’, where the electricity jumps through the air. I think the minimum approach distance for 500,000 volts is 11ft 2ins. Sometimes the helicopter will land us on the tower to replace insulators or other hardware: then we have to use a ‘hot stick’, which is a non-conductive pole. When you work with the sticks, the electricity jumps to the metal part on the end: it’s like a miniature electrical storm right there on the end of a stick. Most guys are so fascinated they sit there and screw with it a while.
What’s been your closest brush with death?
There have been so many. The biggest risk is putting the helicopter in the wires with just inches in clearance. But we work with the world’s best pilots. Some have been flying since Vietnam. Water is the most difficult thing for a pilot to fly over because he can’t get a reference point, and we were working in the middle of a lake once when the chopper started drifting into the wire. I managed to hold the wire away from the helicopter while the pilot did a phenomenal recovery job, but that was as close as it got without dying. If the tail rotor gets in the wire, you’re done.
What’s the pay like?
Very good. I haven’t made less than $100,000 in the past five years.
Have you ever blacked out a whole city by mistake?
No, but I’ve known guys who have shut down half a city. You see a fireball and then it’s an, “Oh shit!” feeling. You try to fix your mistake as fast as possible, especially in the South-west where people rely on their air-conditioners to stay alive when it’s a million degrees.
Is there much training, or are you sent straight up there?
You need to have experience of building lines before you step on a chopper, then they teach you on the job. The first time at 500,000 volts, my heart was beating hard. Waking up 500,000 volts was way louder than I thought. If you turn on an AM radio, you can hear us energise the helicopter from three miles away.
Wild. What’s the worst weather you’ve worked in?
When we had gusts of 40mph off the tail. It was a rodeo. The most phenomenal pilot I’ve worked with could only do one or two structures before having to land in a field to let his muscles relax before doing another one.
Have you ever toasted marshmallows on the live wires?
I’ve never been able to cook anything, but you can light a cigarette. And when you are on a metal structure that is energised, you can take a tool out of your belt and weld your name on to the steel. Oh yeah, you have to put your initials on.
What’s the worst emergency you’ve ever attended?
I’ve been out in hurricanes, firestorms, industrial accidents. Ice storms are bad: when you get structures that have snapped, and miles and miles of line is on the ground, there are a lot of hidden dangers. If things are on the verge of breaking and you change the strain on something, you could have a massive ball of death and destruction heading your way. Then there was one incident where the wire was jumping around and sparking, so you stay the hell away from it until you can shut it off.
How do you unwind?
I don’t drink a whole lot, but most of the guys deal with it with alcohol. When you say ‘lineman’, you might as well say ‘alcoholic’. But I’ve been doing this job for eight years now, so it doesn’t affect me like it did. Ten minutes’ TV and I’m asleep.
So no women?
Are you kidding? I don’t really like it, but if you wanna sleep with a different girl every day, you can. We go to small towns, we’re different and we can buy everyone as much beer as they want. The local girls see us an opportunity to escape or get some new genes in the gene pool. It’s called having a ‘road wife’.