Wilson Construction builds profits with aviation assets

High-precision electrical power line support in remote areas is standard practice for Oregon-based contractor.

By Grant McLaren

(L–R) Senior Helo Pilot Federico Landaeta, Senior Mechanic Eric Waite, Exec VP & General Counsel Jeff Johnson, Pres & CEO Don Wilson, VP Finance Stacy Wilson, fixed-wing maintenance provider Management West Dir of Mx Tom Anders, Chief Pilot Helos Jim Hattan, Senior Helo Pilot William Olson, Chief Pilot FW Jeff Ward and Logistics Mgr Tony Helbling with assorted powerline utility equipment. Backdrop includes Citation CJ1, MD500E and King Air 350 at UAO (Aurora OR).

Over the past 58 years Wilson Construction has developed and fine-tuned a unique business niche in supporting a wide range of electrical transmission power projects. Today, with a fleet consisting of a Cessna Citation CJ1, Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 and C90GTi plus 5 MD Helicopters MD500Es and 1 MD530F, this Canby OR-based contractor with 450 employees and more than 1000 pieces of construction equipment offers one-stop solutions to electric utility companies throughout the US and overseas.

“Our primary business is building power lines and we can do quick response jobs probably better than anyone in the industry,” says CEO Don Wilson. “Having our own aircraft to position crews and to operate on site has been very successful for us and a huge selling point for our customers.

With our own helicopter and fixed-wing fleets we’re able to bid on jobs we may not have been able to bid on otherwise and we’re in much better control of the overall process and safety.” Helicopter missions range from delicate high-wire acts at locations across the US to months-long operational stints at assorted remote locales.

Meanwhile, Wilson Construction’s fixed-wing fleet supports everything from management site visits to shuttling entire crews of lineman from one job to another. As jobsites are often near small towns, the company’s Raisbeck equipped King Airs allow practical all-weather access to locations such as 33S (Ritzville WA) with its 3635-ft strip.

Pilot Andrea Somma holds an MD500E steady while a lineman makes a “tower top transfer” to a post insulator on a job near Ketchikan AK.

Seven full-time helicopter pilots and 6 mechanics support company helo ops and they’re on the road working out of everything from Best Western hotels to floating helo bases deep within Alaskan fjords. Last summer the group supported 1700 hrs of helo ops, working off a floating base camp in Alaska, while supplying the operation with personnel, supplies and helicopter parts aboard fixed-wing runs from the UAO (Aurora OR) home base.

Rotor wing pilots and mechanics lived on the remote barge for 3 week shifts while the King Air 350 handled crew changes and even delivered a replacement Allison 250-C20B+ engine to an AOG MD500E deep in the wilds of Alaska. Fixed-wing fleet is piloted by CEO Don Wilson, VP Finance Stacy Wilson and Chief Pilot Jeff Ward.

Rotor ops

Wilson Construction helicopter pilots do things as SOP many a rotor wing pilot would not even want to consider! It takes special skills to excel and survive in this job says Chief Pilot Helicopters Jim Hattan, a 27,000-hr pilot who joined the team in 2004.

CEO Don Wilson (L) and VP Finance Stacy Wilson at the controls of the company King Air 350.

Rotor wing pilots here work on an intimate basis with electrical power lines—dropping linemen off on power cables and transmission towers and ferrying crews between suspended platforms. This is the Cirque du Soleil of high-wire helo flying and many well-qualified new-hire prospects simply turn around and say “no” when they see what’s involved during the hiring process.

“Pilots are normally taught to avoid wires but here we need to be able to embrace power lines and feel comfortable flying in a wire environment,” says Hattan, whose fleet of 6 MD helicopters work intimately with assorted networks of above-ground electrical cabling. “We’re a different breed of cat out here and it’s not the same as executive or EMS flying.

We have to know where we are in relation to existing wires even though we may not be able to see them. It’s a matter of being in absolute control of our space and we’re very particular on hiring well-experienced pilots with good depth perception and solid longline skills.

We’re constantly moving linemen between towers and our pilots must give confidence to linemen who step off a helicopter as high as 300 ft AGL.” Helicopters not only enhance efficiency in power cable support work—perhaps completing a job in 3 min vs hours to position from the ground—but there’s also a payoff in terms of linemen retention says Don Wilson.

“Being able to save linemen 20–30 minutes to climb transmission towers and then easily commute from tower to tower—or putting them on a longline for 30 minutes to work among the wires—has been something of a recruiting tool in hiring and retaining linemen,” he says.

“A guy on a platform can often do the work of many on the ground. There are also important benefits in using helicopters within environmentally sensitive areas such as national parks with restricted access. We can fly crews in and out without touching, or affecting, the ground.”

Exec VP & General Counsel Jeff Johnson is a member of HAI’s utilities, patrol and construction committee and works closely with the committee on advancement and safety of the civil helicopter industry. “Safety is always our number 1 focus,” he says, “and we’re much better able to control all aspects of operational safety with our own inhouse aviation assets and procedures.”

In Alaska, an MD500E finishes delivering parts to workers on a “baker board” while they are “dead-ending” a conductor into an insulator. The helicopter moved both men, all the tools and the board to this elevated position from a barge several miles away.

Wilson Construction helicopter crews typically work 3 weeks on with 2 weeks off and live all over the country. RONs can number 150– 170 nights in total away from home a year at everything from Hilton Hotels to makeshift barge heliports. Personality and psychological makeup are important factors in the hiring process.

This is not a white-glove environment and pilots must be comfortable being away from home for extended periods and working as a team, with perhaps just a single mechanic, at remote locales. Routine activities may involve putting 1 skid on a log stump to drop off technicians in a small clearing to a recent case of replacing sections of damaged wires after a California fire.


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