They were overhead but just barely over the treetops, impossible to miss or ignore for long. They weren’t conducting a search for a fugitive or cutting trees back from railroad tracks (that was last summer), and they weren’t from the Vermont National Guard.
Recent helicopter activity in the vicinity of Waterbury and Duxbury attracted the attention of local residents, workers, and school students out at recess.
The choppers belong to the Pembroke, N.H., company JBI Helicopter Services and the crews are in the midst of a “comprehensive inspection” of part of Vermont’s electric power grid. That work has taken JBI through the area flying low and slow over power-line corridors, sometimes hovering slightly below the treetops where there is clearance.
Electric utilities sent brief communications to customers mentioning the inspection work. The practice is standard and routine, albeit noisy and a little unnerving.
“It’s actually quite boring. But in aviation, boring is good,” said company President Kurt West in an interview this week.
A closer look reveals the words “Utility Patrol” on the side of the aircraft. The camera mounted on the nose of the chopper is “motion-picture quality” that company West attests costs “more than some homes.” It films and tracks using GPS coordinates, creating a video map that utility companies can use to pinpoint within a few feet of a location that needs attention, resulting in preventative maintenance that could make the difference to avoid a future power outage, he explains.
“I use the comparison that this is like health care for the power lines,” he said. “This is common practice. We look at the overall health of the grid.”
The checkup encompasses “lines, poles, insulators, every structure to observe the integrity of the grid,” West said. “We work for every utility in the state of Vermont.”
The helicopter crew recently has been covering a stretch from Barre working westward to Burlington. By the end of this week, it was off to Bolton and Richmond. It will then turn south through the Champlain Valley to Southern Vermont, West said. “We’re covering about a third of Vermont with this program.”
In business since 1983, JBI describes itself as a “full-service” helicopter outfit, flying and servicing its own fleet of Bell helicopters, doing maintenance on other private and government-owned Bell aircraft. Technicians do avionics repair for helicopters and airplanes and staff also offer helicopter flight instruction.
Power line inspections are just a part of JBI’s flight work. Bridges, pipelines, wind turbines are other structures inspected from the air, sometimes using drones in conjunction with helicopters. JBI pilots do mapping, heavy aerial lifting, filming for movies and even stocking upwards of 60 remote New Hampshire ponds with fish each year.
“We do anything you can’t get to by conventional equipment,” West says in a company video on its website. “The helicopter is a really good tool.”