A Little Off The Sides

Posted: February 4, 2013

The Winchester Star

MOUNTAIN FALLS -- Jeff Schiltz is a modern-day Paul Bunyon, but instead of a blue ox, this woodsman has a McDonnell Douglas MD 500 helicopter.

His most recent assignment has him trimming tree limbs along Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s power line right-of-ways in southwestern Frederick County.

Jeff Schiltz's tool box for trimming itrees is a little different than most. His includes a McDonnell Douglas MD 500 helicopter. (WINCHESTER STAR PHOTO/VAL VAN METER)

Schiltz is a pilot for Tabor, N.C.-based Aerial Solutions Inc.

The 28-year old company has seven helicopters and clears rights of way for utility companies and pipelines primarily in the southeastern United States.

Aided by his groundman, William “Willie” Rust, Schiltz lifts an 800-pound chain saw suspended from the belly of his chopper and runs its whirling blades along the tree edge, chopping off limbs that extend toward the lines.

Only the most experienced pilots fly the narrower rights of way that lead through wooded areas to homes, Rust said.

“Everything is so tight and close in there,” Rust said. “It takes good control. It takes all your attention, all the time.”

Aerial Solutions “breaks in” new pilots on the big transmission lines with their hundreds of feet of right-of-way width, Rust said.

“The more you do, the better you get,” said Rust, who was formerly a helicopter pilot, until health issues made him change careers.

“It does take more experience,” said Schiltz, to trim the more narrow swaths.

When he’s flying, Schiltz controls the saw through a remote device. The saw has two speeds, idling without the blades turning, or at full speed. He can’t actually see the saw because it hangs below the helicopter.

He maneuvers the device, about 110 feet long, along the edge of the right of way, and raises or lowers the chopper’s height to match the trees.

Aerial Solutions touts the aerial saw as faster than hand trimming because the helicopter is not limited by terrain or ground conditions.

Schiltz flies about an hour before he has to return to a base area to refuel.

In the support truck, Rust keeps tabs on a digital timer and, after 45 minutes, calls Schiltz for a “fuel check.”

This helps pilots, he said, because they must stay focused on what they are doing and might not remember to check the fuel gauge at the right time.

When Schiltz says he has fuel for another 15 minutes, Rust resets his timer, ready to remind again.

With a full load of fuel — about 300 pounds — Rust said the pilot must be more careful with the craft.

“As the fuel load lightens, you have more maneuverability then.”

When Schiltz returns to the landing site, he carefully descends until the saw touches the ground.

Then, he flies the helicopter backward and down, so the saw gently lowers its length to the grass.

Schiltz continues backing and descending until the helicopter lands, with the cable to the saw straight away in front of him.

As Schiltz grabbed a sandwich and a bottle of water on a recent workday, Rust fueled the helicopter and the saw, and checked the blades for any damage.

It doesn’t happen very often, Schiltz said, but if the saw should get hung up in a tree, the pilot has a lever that will release the saw from the cable and free the aircraft.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, you can get it out,” Schiltz said. Usually, pilots can use the weight of the saw itself to break it free, by descending and taking the lift out of the cable line.

“I only know of one that stayed in a tree,” Schiltz said. That required someone to climb up and remove the stuck blade from the saw, he added, then the helicopter could lift it away.

Schiltz, who is 59 years old and has been flying for 40 of those years, didn’t start out to be a helicopter pilot.

After a year in college, the Chicago native didn’t know what he wanted to do in life, so he ended up talking to an Army recruiter.

“I asked, ‘Do you guys fly anything,’” and “the rest is history.”

He ended up in Korea for eight years, flying helicopter Medivac trips south of the Demilitarized Zone, and later carrying military VIPs around the country.

In the 1980s, back in civilian life, he ferried oil and gas exploration crews and equipment in many western states.

Later, he moved to Alaska, where helicopters and small aircraft are the workhorses of a variety of industries.

“There are very few roads. A majority of everything moves by air,” Schiltz said.

Helicopters support mining and logging, he said. He even flew wildlife officials to the state’s north slope to count ducks.

An unusual job involved unloading fish from trawlers.

The boats, he said, had to dock on the south side of a river, where the water was deep enough for them.

The road to the freezer plant was on the north side.

So helicopters hoisted crates of fish up and over the river to the waiting trucks.

Schiltz said the choppers unloaded 200,000 pounds of salmon, a thousand pounds at a time.

A summer job there involved carrying pallets of sod to a ski area, under construction.

The company had built lift towers and then had to re-sod the slopes.

Schiltz also worked in Hawaii for a year, giving tourists an aerial view of that Pacific paradise, but, he said, a year was enough. The job “gets old” saying the same thing about the same places, day after day.

In 1988, he joined Aerial Solutions, and he has been with them ever since.

It’s a unique schedule, he said. He flies for 28 days, and then he’s off for 28 days.

At the end of his shift last week, he flew the helicopter to Roanoke and left it for another pilot, while Rust drove the support truck to rendezvous with another crew.

Then Schiltz flew off to his home in Mount Vernon, Wash., where he might do some salmon fishing of his own, or play a little golf, or read.

But mostly, he said, there’s tons of work to do on his 1910 farmhouse.

The lawn always needs mowing and the trees need trimming when he’s gone for a month — just not with a helicopter.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com