Working in the Sky: Midlander Nick Roenfeld Takes a Helicopter to His Job SiteNov 01, 2022 09:55AM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When electrical linemen are on the job, they’re usually seen climbing steel or wooden power line poles, or accessing lines from a bucket at the end of the long mechanical arm of a utility truck.
Lineman Nick Roenfeld utilizes a very different approach: flying in by chopper. This is not an occasional gig for the electrical worker, who lives in Malvern, Iowa. It’s his modus operandi as a member of a brave team that uses helicopters to access power lines at great heights, well beyond what utility trucks can reach. “We often work on structures that are about 70 to 120 feet above the ground,” he said. “Depending on the structure and the terrain, we sometimes can get as high as 200 feet.”
Before becoming a helicopter lineman, Roenfeld, 33, said he moved from job to job looking for the right fit. He earned a degree in cardiac kinesiology at Iowa State University, worked as a personal fitness trainer, and became a conductor for Union Pacific Railroad. Then he took the advice of a cousin: learn a trade that could provide a good future. Roenfeld enrolled in Metropolitan Community College’s utility line program. While attending weekend courses for a year-and-a-half, he worked various jobs to stay afloat.
Upon graduation, he joined a South Dakota electrical contracting firm as a regular lineman. From there he went to sites in Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Along the way, he met two coworkers who suggested he look into becoming a helicopter lineman. When he contacted a helicopter company, he was hired and sent to Texas for training. Soon, he was riding helicopters near power lines from Key West to Wichita to the north coast of Alaska and New York City.
The project at Key West, a transmission line crossing part of the ocean, showed the benefits of using helicopters. “It was easier to take a helicopter from structure to structure rather than rent a barge, put a truck on it, and go to each structure,” Roenfeld explained matter-of-factly.
About a year ago, he joined another helicopter company, JBI Helicopter Services, which has about 100 employees at facilities in New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Besides installing, inspecting, and maintaining electrical transmission line projects, JBI engages in aerial applications, forestry projects, transports people and cargo, and services helicopters.
Brian Pearce, director of line operations at JBI, said that of the company’s two dozen helicopters, seven are used exclusively with transmission lines. Called the MD 500, they are nimble descendants of a line of small military observation helicopters used in Vietnam—ideal for flying near transmission lines because they respond quickly to pilots’ commands.
When Roenfeld receives an assignment, he flies commercially from Omaha to the job site, where a small heliport has been built as an operating base. “We have a job briefing every morning,” said the electrical worker, who is one of JBI’s 17 helicopter linemen. “We go over what work is going to be done, the hazards, the risks, how we’re going to approach the structure, and how we’re going to work on them.”
Much of his work is done while standing on one of the helicopter’s skids. “We’re harnessed 100% of the time,” said Roenfeld, who’s flown up to a structure or a wire. He then sets about his work, replacing equipment on the structures and wires or installing new gear. He wears steel-toed shoes and fire-retardant clothing. His helmet keeps him in radio contact with his pilot. Most often, he operates on lines carrying no electricity. However, when linemen work with energized lines, they wear special gear called Faraday suits to protect themselves from the electricity.
“The highest voltage that I’ve worked on is 345,000 volts,” Roenfeld shared.
At times, he leaves the helicopter to work on a power pole’s cross arm. When he does that, he fixes his harness to the structure and takes his gear and tools. If he will be a while, he lets the pilot fly away and radios later for pickup.
Another way that Roenfeld works is by hanging below the helicopter on a 50- to 75-foot-long rope. The pilot then maneuvers him where he needs to be.
“Nick is by far one of our very elite apprentices,” Pearce said. “He’s dedicated and has a whole lot of knowledge not only about power line work but other things as well, and that helps him.”
Despite working up in the air nowadays, Roenfeld once had a fear of heights. “I still get a little nervous now and then,” he confessed. "If you have a fear, you can either let it control you or you can face it and cope with it to overcome it.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.