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Saw-wielding helicopters keep Shenandoah Valley power line paths clean

A long rod holding several circular saw blades
Randi B. Hagi
Ten rotating saw blades line the 30-foot trimming device that dangles below the helicopter while airborne.

Each year starting in January, 30-foot rows of circular saw blades cut branches and brush away from the power lines.

Read the original story on WMRA's website.

Over the past few months, some Shenandoah Valley residents may have seen saw-wielding helicopters trimming vegetation along power lines.

Trimming season is winding down for Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, but recently, an MD 500 helicopter with an aerial saw was still flying around the mountains in Rockingham County. Each year starting in January, crews from the North Carolina-based company Aerial Solutions cut branches and brush away from the co-op's power lines. A 30-foot row of circular saw blades is mounted on a 100-foot boom that hangs vertically from the helicopter. It looks a bit like an electric trimmer you'd use on your hedge ... but much bigger.

Out in a hayfield in Fulks Run, Pilot Shawn Johnson slowly lowered the 800-pound saw to the ground, and landed to be refueled.

"Most of the morning, we've been out in the mountains," Johnson said. "A lot of it's over water, in big valleys, mountains, you know, inaccessible stuff where you couldn't get a truck to it."

A helicopter with a contraption holding several saws dangling from it
Randi B. Hagi
VPM News
A saw-wielding helicopter takes off on an overcast day in Fulks Run.

Johnson worked several different pilot jobs before joining Aerial Solutions, where he got another six months of training to learn how to fly with the saw.

"Yeah, after doing it for a while, it's just like driving a car," Johnson said. "I'd say the most challenging is when the wind starts blowing in the mountains."

Preston Knight, communication manager for the co-op, said the aerial saws help to serve their rural population. It's rare for them to hit something they aren't aiming to, like the power lines, but it does happen on occasion.

"Hopefully we avoid those situations, and we do for the most part!" Knight said. "It requires a lot of training and expertise and navigating on the saw. … If there is something larger that happens, we'll get crews out there to fix the situation."

The main goal of trimming is to eliminate limbs and trees that might otherwise come down during storms and knock out customers' power.

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