For Our Fine Feathered Friends
My colleague Rainer got an e-mail, inviting him to fly in a helicopter in Lower Saxony with our colleagues at Avacon. They were installing markers to keep birds from flying into the high voltage lines and asked if we would come along to film. Rainer was really thrilled at the invite and I was super jealous. I had never been in a helicopter and he had already flown with a chopper over Texas, to film some of our assets there.
If the story had ended there, Rainer would have had another great trip in a helicopter, looking very cool and writing this story. But that's not how it went down. The bad news was that Rainer got sick. Not really sick, but sick enough that he just couldn’t make it. (As an aside, he’s feeling better - although I’m sure he’s now the jealous one).
Now, the only thing in the way of a cool helicopter ride was the A2 - the highway that runs East-West through Germany (through Dortmund, Hannover, Berlin) and is a perpetual construction zone. Somehow sensing that I might not make the drive there and back in one day, I started out the day before. It was a good decision. There is hardly a spot between Berlin and Hannover where you can drive faster than 80 km/h.
Eventually, after listening to a lot of MDR (the local radio station) I landed in a town called Hodenhagen. Despite the funny name, the town seems to be mostly known for its safari park. This meant that my hotel was full of toddlers and older people, which is a disastrous mix and results in a lot of loud noises, all through the night. But at least the evening buffet had pudding, which is well loved by all generations.
Otherwise, this area is part of the Lüneburger Heide (Lüneburg Heath), which is a wonderful nature reserve in the northeastern part of Lower Saxony, filled with heath, geest and woodlands. It was a pleasure to walk through the small towns in the area, checking out the lovely streams along the flat, grassy landscapes. I almost couldn’t wait to see it from above, because I was just gearing up for my helicopter ride!
I only had the name of the road where our substation was located, without a house number, but given the terrain, it was no problem to spot it well in advance. A small sign indicated that this was an Avacon substation and then another sign warned me not to enter without a hard hat.
So, I stood outside for quite sometime, trying to flag down the group, to no avail. But thankfully we live in the digital age, and it wasn’t long before I received my hard hat and was allowed into the high voltage area.
In Germany, you don’t have to spend too much time thinking about power lines. They're generally invisible to all of us humans crowded around in big city centers. But that definitely changes the farther you go into the country. The networks, especially those carrying the electricity away from production sites - are largely overground. They’re not only visible, but also sometimes in the way - at least for the birds.
I Love the Smell of Jet Fuel in the Morning
There were two helicopters waiting inside the enclosed area around the substation. One was especially equipped with a platform seat, where a worker could sit with his legs out of the helicopter to work on the power lines. From there, the person installing is well strapped in, wearing a special helmet where he can stay in contact with the pilot. This team from Rotorflug works especially close together, with the pilot keeping the helicopter very steady while the work is being performed on the lines.
My helicopter was there more for observation purposes, without a stage, but with open side, where I was told that I cold lean out onto the bar. I was strapped in with a 4 point belt and I traded in my hard hat for a headset. The pilot and I could talk at any time. I sat right in back of him, where I was told was the best place to film, with just me, and the air between me and the ground. Watching the pilot and the installer doing their job together was amazing, as was flying in a helicopter. It was really hard to hold the camera, and my smart phones. There was a lot of shuffling of equipment. The pilot showed me how to store things in the cracks between the seats.
Bird is the Word
And at the end of the day, all this work was being done for the birds. Over 1,300 black and white signals were being installed over the course of ten days - all through the area, and then up towards Emden. The signals were made of special UV coated plastic, meant to last a long time up on the power lines and in the hot sun.
Each piece was installed by hand, by the workers, as seen in this video. The dangling signals are attached by a piece of metal at the top, and then attached to the power lines using metal fasteners.
There are so many birds here in this area, including the white stork, and other migratory and visitor birds, such as osprey, geese, ducks and swans. The lines can be dangerous for them when flying through. But research has shown that the birds can easily avoid the lines when they see them in time. The signals should help them to do this. Although I’m not an ornithologist, or even a hobby ornithologist, I do appreciate the birds and I hope that our signals will keep them safe.
It was a wonderful day outside, observing nature from both above and below, and as I was waiting for the working helicopter to return for refueling (they had my GoPro, after all) I took a minute to watch the birds flying through the area. I saw a large bird gliding in the air. Perhaps it was curious what was going on at our substation. Or maybe it saw something delicious to eat below. In any case, it was lovely and free. At least I got a bird’s eye view for the day. And I now know what it’s like to fly away, thanks to our colleagues at Avacon.