Gallery: Nerves of steel for National Grid workers

IT is not a job for those with a fear of heights.

Roddy Ashworth

IT is not a job for those with a fear of heights.

Dangling from a helicopter precariously close to 400,000 volt live electricity lines, these workers are carrying out a role which requires nerves of steel.

The National Grid engineers in East Anglia have perfected a technique for repairing towering high-voltage electricity lines without switching off the power.

In a highly complex manoeuvre involving a team of 15 people, a helicopter pilot takes off with two engineers in a basket on a 150ft reinforced rope below him.

Using radios the engineers carefully guides the helicopter to hover above the damaged part of the lines so they can carry out repairs.

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The engineers are dressed in specialist suits reinforced with steel wire to protect them from the high voltage lines.

Chris Land, 39, a specialist techniques engineer, said the helicopter was used where the lines could not be accessed any other way.

He added: “It takes quite a unique person to be able to stomach the type of work we do. There can be 400,000 volts running through the lines.

“When you first reach out to them there can be an element of apprehension, you get an 18inch spark coming from the lines to your finger but you don't feel any pain.

“Some people take to it like a duck to water, other people think it's not for them and go back to their normal day job and carry out their maintenance on the lines.”

The National Grid owns and is responsible for maintaining some 21,000km of high voltage lines across England and Wales.

The live line work is so highly specialist that there are only about a dozen engineers across the country who have been trained to work with the two helicopter pilots. Because of fuel restraints the helicopter can only hover above the lines for 20 minutes at a time.

Mr Land added: “It can cost a lot of money to switch the supply off. This way we can maintain the supply and carry out our repairs which means keeping the cost of the electricity down.

“The lads in the basket are insulated by the rope which is a minimum of 100 feet long from the helicopter, so obviously won't be hitting the other phases of electricity.

“It's the same principle as birds sitting on the smaller wires, because they're not earthed.

“While they're in the basket they'll wear a 'hot suit', which is made of fire retardant material reinforced with stainless steel wire which makes the suit conductive and creates a Faraday Cage around the individual whilst they're in the basket.

“It's certainly an adrenaline rush and the views are amazing from up there. You certainly need a head for heights.

“The people who see us at work are amazed. They think we must be mad.”

The team are currently training new engineers using a disconnected power line to the decommissioned Bradwell-on-Sea nuclear power station in Essex.