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Collision spurs safety concerns
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Helicopter pilots hate surprises.
Power lines, in particular, are likely to rank near the top of any chopper pilots list of undesirable mid-air obstacles.
Certainly this is the case with Phil Stevenson.
Stevenson, a pilot from Haines, owns Sundance Helicopters, Baker Countys only such service.
On Feb. 18, 2000, he was flying his Hiller three-seat helicopter over the Three Valleys Ranch, in the Dixie Creek area south of Weatherby.
Stevensons passengers were Nando Mauldin, the ranchs security chief, and Walt Hawkins, an Oregon State Police game officer who was off-duty at the time.
They were in the air to shoot coyotes that had been harassing cattle on the ranch.
Stevenson had flown in the area before, carrying state wildlife biologists who prefer helicopters because the crafts ability to fly low and slow makes it easier to get accurate counts of deer and other big game animals.
Thus Stevenson was shocked when his helicopters main rotor slashed through a set of power lines he never saw.
Stevenson landed safely.
And equally miraculous, neither he nor his passengers was hurt.
Stevenson, who has been flying helicopters since 1989, said hes heard of only one other case in which a pilot whose helicopter hit a power line wasnt hurt.
Usually its fatal, he said.
The helicopter itself, however, didnt fare as well as its pilot and passengers.
One of the severed power lines slapped the plastic bubble, punching several holes in it.
Hawkins said his shoulder was resting against the bubble at the time, but he sustained only a bruise.
The shock of the rotor slashing into the lines also may have damaged the choppers engine and transmission, Stevenson said. He had both components replaced.
All told, he spent $75,000 for repairs, a bill his insurance did not cover.
Whats so dangerous about that power line, Stevenson said, is that it isnt festooned with colored balls or other markers that would make visible the lines on the long span between two poles.
He estimated the distance at about four-tenths of a mile.
The hazard wouldnt be quite so acute were at least one of the poles readily visible, he said.
Im trained to watch for the poles, Stevenson said.
In most situations, he said, its hard to see power lines.
But on that long span near Dixie Creek, a rock outcropping and, depending on a persons position, the lay of the land obscures the nearest pole, he said.
Hawkins said its virtually impossible to see those lines even if youre looking for them.
He said he didnt believe the helicopter had hit the wires until a ranch employee told the trio after they landed that the power to his house was out.
Hawkins said he had thought the chopper struck a bird.
Stevenson reported the accident to Idaho Power Company, which owns the power line.
He also submitted a damage claim to the company.
But Stevenson said Idaho Power officials, to his surprise, denied the claim.
I was hoping theyd want to settle up, he said.
Instead, the company sent Stevenson a $2,100 bill for repairs to the power line.
Thats fairly common, explained Dennis Lopez, corporate communications specialist with Idaho Power. If somebody rams into one of our poles with a car, we send them a bill.
Stevenson said he has refused to pay. Stevenson said he has considered suing Idaho Power, but hasnt made any decision.
After the accident, Stevenson was surprised to learn that although the Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory circular regarding the marking of power lines, the agency has no rule that requires Idaho Power to mark the lines his helicopter hit.
Daren Griffin, a spokesman from the Oregon Department of Aviation, said power companies generally dont have to mark their lines or poles unless theyre adjacent to an airport, or more than 200 feet above the ground.
Pilots who fly lower than that do so at their own risk, Griffin said.
Its not the power company thats at fault, he said.
Lopez said Idaho Power employs people to make sure the companys poles and lines meet federal standards.
Things fly into our lines every once in a while, he said. Everything was within standards, to our knowledge.
Regardless of the lack of an FAA requirement, Stevenson and both of his passengers believe those lines should be marked.
I have many years of flying as observer during wildlife surveys for both the state and federal governments in both fixed wing and helicopters, and in my considered opinion this unmarked power line span is a potential death trap, Mauldin wrote in a letter he sent earlier this year to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Stevens is chairman of the Senates Appropriations Committee and a member of the Aviation subcommittee.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also is a member of that subcommittee.
Mauldin also wrote that he believes the unmarked lines pose a threat to helicopters and airplanes that may have to fly in the area to fight range fires. Both types of aircraft flew in that vicinity while a blaze was burning nearby in the summer of 2000.
Mauldin said Thursday morning that he has had no response from Stevens regarding the letter.
I think its a very dangerous thing, Mauldin said. Its kind of like a spider building a web and waiting for something to fly into it.
Stevenson said hes thankful he didnt lose any business over last years accident he has two Hiller helicopters, so he flew one while his other craft was being repaired.
Hes even more thankful that he didnt lose something vastly more important: his life, or those of his passengers.
I got a few more gray hairs out of the deal, Stevenson said.
He also changed the design of the Sundance Helicopters hats he wears.
On the newest batch of hats, theres a slogan, in Spanish, across the back: Vaya con Dios.
In English: Go with God.
Stevenson figures thats just what he was doing on that February day above Dixie Creek.