Expanding Our View from Above

FirstEnergy’s new Bell 429 helicopters will feature a blueand-white color scheme with “Utility” along the bottom.

April 9, 2021

It’s not unusual to see helicopters flying along our transmission lines. This summer, you may notice one that is a bit larger, with the word “Utility” along the bottom. That – and its distinctive dark-blue-and-white color scheme – will identify it as one of two new Bell 429 helicopters joining FirstEnergy’s air fleet.

Employees to Receive In-Depth Flight Training

The Utility Aerial Asset Control Program establishes company standards based on flight industry best practices for contractor qualifications, pilot qualifications and training, fatigue risk management, aircraft inspections and other operational requirements. In-depth safety and procedural training also will be required for employees flying on airborne missions. Flight Operations will work with each business unit to arrange training for those who need it and will maintain a list of flight-approved personnel.

“A review of our utility-focused aerial operations showed that for some missions, owning and flying our own aircraft makes the most sense,” said Todd Fite, director, Flight Operations. “Of course, our aerial contractors still provide valuable, cost-effective support for many tasks, so you’ll continue to see plenty of their helicopters over our power lines as well.”

Helicopters provide us with a view of our electrical equipment that we can’t get from the ground – and the aircraft can inspect miles of power lines in a single day. We use helicopters for routine patrols of our transmission system – typically twice a year. These patrols are designed to look for broken crossarms, damaged insulators and other visible equipment issues. More comprehensive airborne inspections – focused on smaller components that may need to be repaired or replaced – are conducted every four years. Helicopters also play a significant role in vegetation management and sometimes assist with assessing storm damage.

FirstEnergy’s newest aircrafts will be larger than the helicopters typically used by our contractors, with a heavier payload capacity and features that give them a greater margin of safety for their missions. While contractor helicopters normally  have one engine and are flown by a single pilot, the Bell 429 has two engines with a two-person flight crew – pilot and copilot – and can keep flying with one engine – should the other malfunction. This redundancy significantly enhances the safety of those on board, which – in addition to the flight crew – will at least initially include two business-unit employees conducting inspections or other work during a typical mission. All flight crews and passengers will be FirstEnergy employees.

One helicopter will be based with Flight Operations at Akron-Canton Airport and will operate mainly over our American Transmission Systems, Inc. (ATSI) assets in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. While a home base has yet to be determined for the other helicopter, it will cover primarily the systems of our Mid-Atlantic Interstate Transmission, LLC (MAIT) affiliate in Pennsylvania. The Ohio-based aircraft should arrive in July, with the second one expected in September. Watch for future updates on FirstEnergy Today

Ne​​w Program to Enhance Aerial Coordination and Safety

Unmanned drones are often used now for transmission asset inspections.

The study that prompted the decision to purchase these aircraft also revealed the advantages of developing a centralized program to help our utility companies more safely and effectively coordinate the use of aerial assets across our service territory. As a result, Flight Operations is undertaking a new Utility Aerial Asset Control Program.

“With the airspace becoming more crowded, this new program implements a control plan for all flight operations – from contractor helicopters to our own unmanned drones – at all times around our lines and facilities,” said Todd. Combined with live aerial asset tracking and enhanced communication with flight crews, the program will give Flight Operations a complete picture of everything we have in the air, where it is and what it’s doing at any given time.

“Maintaining this level of situational awareness is another way of enhancing the safety of our employees in the air,” he said. “The control plan also should pay operational dividends through more efficient and effective coordination of the assets we use.”​