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The Los Angeles City Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the largest municipal utility in the United States, carries a heavy burden. With a population of over four million people, natural semi-arid desert conditions, and an average of just 13 inches (33 centimeters) of rainfall a year, Los Angeles has a seemingly unquenchable thirst. About 20 percent of the city’s water comes from the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, with the extensive Los Angeles Aqueduct system taking it through a series of canals, tunnels, pipelines and pumping stations to the second largest city in the United States.
The LADWP is tasked with patrolling and maintaining this essential piece of infrastructure, along with all other facilities and infrastructure that make up its vast water system. And just as significantly, it powers Los Angeles, supplying more than 26 million megawatt-hours of electricity a year to its 1.5 million residential and business customers.
Formed in 1902 for water services, the LADWP expanded to electrical power services in 1916. Today, it has more than 10,000 employees, and has the responsibility of maintaining and repairing the 338 miles (545 kilometers) of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (including eight reservoirs), and more than 3,500 miles (5,630 kilometers) of overhead transmission tower lines. The lines extend from Los Angeles through the Owens Valley to Adel, Oregon, and through Boulder City, Nevada, to Delta, Utah.
Covering this vast area would take hundreds of trucks and ground crews, but a fleet of four helicopters — two Bell 407s and two Airbus H125s — allows the LADWP to be far more efficient with its resources.
The department began using helicopters to patrol, inspect and repair its infrastructure in the 1960s. It originally used Bell 47G3-B1s, then transitioned to Bell 206 JetRangers, and used two former military Bell UH-1B/Cs for heavier utility work. The LADWP quickly saw the benefits of using rotary-wing aircraft to perform its role. Instead of days, crews could reach potential problems in a few hours, saving thousands of hours each year in employee time, which in turn saved rate payer money.
LADWP Aviation Services transitioned to the Bell 206L-3 LongRanger in 1988, giving the unit much better performance in hot and high conditions, longer range, and the ability to lift heavier loads during utility work. Between 1988 and 1997, the unit also operated a Bell 412SP, using it for heavy utility work, such as the placement of poles. However, the aircraft was more than the LADWP needed, and it was transferred to the L.A. City Fire Department to be used as a firefighter until its retirement.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, additional patrols of water and power systems were called for, as they were considered potential targets. Because of this, LADWP Aviation Services bought two Bell 407s to supplement the LongRangers.
Today, the long-serving LongRangers have been retired and two new Airbus H125s have replaced them. The H125s are proving popular due to their power, comfort, endurance, lift capability, and high altitude performance. The team appreciates the 407’s speed, and it is the primary aircraft for the LADWP’s new human external cargo (HEC) program, which pairs pilots with line workers to service the department’s overhead transmission lines.
A varied mission profile
LADWP Aviation Services flies daily security patrols around the Los Angeles Basin and surrounding areas, extending to the upper desert. Patrolled areas include waterways, reservoirs, pump stations and pipes. The team told Vertical there are close to 100 pieces of infrastructure they inspect on their flights, which are performed with one pilot and an aerial observer, both of whom know the route and what to look for. In very general terms, they’re looking for anything out of the ordinary, such as damage to the waterways or pipes, or people near LADWP facilities who should not be there.
The unit also completes longer patrol flights north of the city from the Antelope Valley, above the Los Angeles Aqueduct, through the Owens Valley to Mono Lake, north of Bishop, California. This is normally about a five-hour flight, so the helicopter will refuel at Bishop or another airport (as needed), and then head back to Los Angeles. On these longer flights, the use of a helicopter is particularly efficient, with some of the water piping extremely difficult to access by any other means.
LADWP Aviation Services also schedules patrols and inspections of thousands of transmission towers and powerlines. The company feels that having a view from above gives a better angle from which to spot any damage and obstructions that may compromise the safety of the lines.
The unit’s long line operations are generally flown with a single pilot, using lines from 50 to 200 feet (15 to 60 meters) in length. These jobs include setting power poles, replacing transmission tower components, pulling sock line from tower to tower, and Scuba Grabber (a set of hydraulically operated claws used to remove debris from rivers and other bodies of water) operations.
Work on transmission lines normally requires de-energizing the entire circuit of a powerline. This often means rerouting power through other lines not owned by the LADWP, and doing so can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Using a helicopter to work on powerlines dramatically increases the efficiency of the maintenance operation, minimizing the length of time the power needs to be rerouted.
The LADWP’s recently-launched HEC program allows lineworkers and pilots to partner together on transmission linework for the first time in the department’s history. Helicopters will carry lineworkers from the ground onto a transmission structure or wire using an external line below the aircraft. This helps lineworkers access hard-to-reach areas and creates a safer work environment by reducing climbing, while increasing productivity.
Participants in the program completed their certification with help from external trainers from Ashland, Oregon-based Air Rescue Systems. From November 2018 through January 2019, employees from the different job classifications learned to collaborate together through classroom sessions and practical exercises on transmission towers. Training included helicopter safety and short haul procedures and work practices.
LADWP personnel were also trained to use HEC to rescue injured linemen from towers. For this operation, a line worker is equipped with a rescue harness from Air Rescue Systems called the Air Rescue Vest. Some of the towers are so remote that it can take hours to reach them on dirt roads, so the LADWP is also equipped with a rapidly deployable litter called the Air Rescue Extraction System, which allows it to repackage and transport an injured worker by HEC to a landing zone that is more quickly and easily accessible for first responders. The department chose to equip the Bell 407s with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified HEC dual hook from Boost Systems.
Other operations performed by LADWP Aviation Services include new project survey flights — looking for new solar, windfarm or other infrastructure locations.
And it has an important role to play following a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, completing a full and complete inspection of waterways, reservoirs, and power-generating assets. It also has an agreement to provide helicopter support for the city following such events, in which it would fly city officials and provide general emergency operations support.
Operational flights take place from sea level to 12,000 feet (3,660 meters), and involve mountain and desert operations in both cold and hot and high conditions. Making the flight conditions even more challenging is the wind that prevails in the mountains and through the Owens Valley during much of the year.
LADWP Aviation Service pilots may be called out to respond to emergency outages anywhere in the system, and this might take them out of town for several days. Survey flights and system maintenance support flights may also take a crew out of the city for an extended amount of time.
LADWP Aviation Services has its own hangar and office facility, and the team consists of two chief pilots and six line pilots. The requirements for new hires are 3,000 flight hours as pilot in command, and 1,500 hours in turbines. Hot and high and longline experience is a benefit, and as the unit recently began HEC operations in support of linemen and for quick-response rescue operations, so is experience in these operations. The unit told Vertical they look for pilots with a breadth of experience, maturity, good judgment, and the ability to work with the other LADWP pilots and employees.
All pilots complete training at Airbus and Bell every two years, and take part in in-house recurrent training every six months, led by a LADWP chief pilot. Flight checks are flown in both the H125s and Bell 407s in specialized operations, such as sock rope pulling, flying with external loads, and operating the Scuba Grabber. As HEC operations become more common, pilots are required to practice HEC proficiency every two weeks.
As the Los Angeles Basin has very busy skies, including numerous photography and sightseeing flights, a thorough knowledge of the area’s airspace is required. Equipment used by LADWP Aviation Services includes gyro-stabilized binoculars, high resolution digital still cameras, and handheld video cameras for patrol flights. The unit will also rent a helicopter camera mount when high quality videotaping is required.
All four LADWP helicopters are maintained by the City of Los Angeles Department of General Services. This department maintains helicopters from the LADWP, and the L.A. Police and L.A. Fire Departments from its hangar at Van Nuys Airport. This FAA part 145 certified repair station has the ability to complete almost all levels of maintenance on these aircraft, and can return them to service in a timely manner.
The team maintains its helicopters to a high standard, as reliability is critical given where the aircraft are flown, while the flight crews take pride in the aircraft and the mission they fly.
In the aircraft and personnel of LADWP Aviation Services, the citizens of Los Angeles have an extremely reliable asset that continues to keep their city connected to the most essential of supplies, while saving time and rate payer money.