Man On a (High-Voltage) Wire
March 26th, 2017 by Dianna Troyer

Badger never knows where the job will take him. Above, he prepares for an early-morning job working on live high-voltage transmission lines in Texas.
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Knight

To commute to work, aerial lineman Kenneth “Badger” Knight hops a ride on a McDonnell Douglas MD500 helicopter—an aircraft known for being small, yet powerful and highly maneuverable.

“It’s the greatest bucket truck in the world,” says Badger, who is whisked hundreds of feet aloft to work on live high-voltage transmission lines and towers.

Depending on the project, Badger is tethered to his perch on a platform or a ladder, or he dangles by a 100-foot rope from a helicopter.

“We maintain and inspect the lines while they’re energized and provide support for contractors who are building new lines,” Badger says.

The lines have 69,000 to 765,000 volts of electricity flowing through them.

“Utilities don’t want to shut down a line for maintenance and have an outage that disrupts the grid,” he says.

Badger and other linemen wash or replace insulators, install 36-inch aerial marker balls and bird deflectors, and splice energized conductors. The 41-year-old Connor Creek, Idaho, native has been an aerial lineman for two years.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Badger says. “It’s never boring, and I like to travel. I never know where they’ll send me next until they email me a plane ticket.”

Typically, Badger works 45 days, then returns home to Connor Creek for a week or two before his next assignment.

He was nicknamed by his grandfather because of his fearless personality as a child Badger says, noting those traits help him on the job.

He says he does not feel fear even when he is 300 feet off the ground because he is focused on the task at hand and does not look down while working.

Mindful of on-the-job dangers, Badger says he starts his workdays with a prayer. He also has a pair of eyes tattooed on the back of his shaven head.

“It reminds me that I’m the one watching my back and that I have to trust myself for my own safety,” he says.

Badger says there are a few misconceptions about his job.

“People think we’re adrenaline junkies and millionaires, but we’re neither,” he says. “You can’t take any risks. You have to be methodical with everything you do. We get paid well enough, but I can’t afford to retire until I’m in my 60s like everyone else.”

Badger is part of a small crew: a pilot, a mechanic and two linemen.

“We drive a 450-gallon fuel truck to the job site because the helicopter burns so much fuel,” Badger says.

Depending on the weather, he works Monday through Saturday, starting at 5 or 6 a.m., when air turbulence is minimal.

“We might quit at noon if the winds pick up, or other days we might work 10 hours,” he says.

To protect himself, Badger wears a helmet and lightweight flannel-like work pants and shirt lined with stainless steel fibers.

“It’s called a Faraday suit and prevents electricity from flowing through the body,” he explains. “The current flows on the outer portion of a conductor instead of through it. The suit builds a field, so electricity flows around us.”

When his aerial work is done, Badger says he takes a few minutes to appreciate his bird’s-eye view of the world.

“In Florida, we had to pull a line that ran over the St. Johns River near Jacksonville,” he says. “You could look down and see dolphins swimming around.”

While home recently, Badger says he happened to watch a television program about the 10 most dangerous jobs.

“Aerial lineman was No. 10,” he says. “But for me, the rewards outweigh the risks. I’ll retire from Haverfield. If I’m not in the air, I could see myself teaching in the classroom.”