The job title of Helicopter Buzzsaw Pilot sounds so impressive, you’d think it was made up. But the profession exists, and it’s pretty much as epic as it sounds.
To keep trees from interfering with power lines and causing blackouts, officials must be vigilant in trimming back the forest on a regular basis. As power lines often stretch for miles, this can be a daunting task by hand. Enter the airborne weedwhacker. Or as it’s officially known, the aerial side-trimmer.
The idea of a chopper-provided tree trimming service was first established in 2003, when a massive blackout left more than 50 million people in the dark. The culprit? A simple tree branch which brushed against a power line. With that, the Transmission Vegetation Management Program was born, dedicated to preventing a repeat incident by ensuring the trees respected the power lines’ personal space.
The setup on an aerial trimmer is downright intimidating, consisting of about 10 circular, carbide-tipped blades, measuring two feet in diameter and dangled 120 feet below a chopper. The deadly cutting implements are operated by the pilot from his seat and can spin at 5800 RPM to sever pesky tree branches about 40 feet at a time. With a good pilot and a plan, they can clear three to six miles of overgrowth a day, on both sides of power lines.
If this sounds like something more suited for a Bond villain than a municipal worker, rest assured that Hollywood thought the same. The flying contraption saw some screen time in “The World is Not Enough,” where villainous aerial trimmers pursued James in the specialized aircraft, slicing his prized BMW Z8 in half as easily as they would a tree trunk.
While the real-life use of the helicopter saw is bit more mundane, it still appears pretty much as dangerous as going after international spies. Pilots must expertly navigate between high-voltage electrical wires and tall trees, often leaning out the window to help guide their progress. But it’s still much safer than traditional tree trimming, where workers can fall from tall heights or be crushed by heavy limbs.
It also saves many an electrical worker from the dangerous business of dealing with an outage caused by Mother Nature. Even in the unlikely scenario that a pilot was to snag a power line, they’d be spared a nasty shock, since they are not grounded. To top it off, the process saves money, allowing public utilities using aerial trimmers to cut green in more ways than one.
All the same, if you’re ever out near power lines in the middle of the woods and hear an approaching helicopter, it’s probably best to steer clear. The most dangerous part of that chopper may be closer to the ground than you think.