WALKER COUNTY, Ga. - Randy Skidmore wasn't surprised to see cars on U.S. Highway 27 slow to a crawl, or by drivers pulling to the shoulder to take photos, or by a motorcyclist shouting in amazement at the apparition hovering overhead.
"You don't see it every day," Skidmore said of the sight that fascinated motorists: A 25-foot-long, 10-bladed, 840-pound saw dangling 80 feet below a helicopter. The giant saw was shaving away branches close to a 25,000-volt power line near Old Trion Highway.
"We get a lot of onlookers stopping and taking photographs," said Skidmore, director of corporate operations for the North Georgia Electric Membership Corp.
The electric cooperative, which serves seven counties, hired Rotor Blade of Georgetown, S.C., to trim trees near transmission lines. The company's helicopter saw has whittled away overgrown woods for a few days and should stay a week longer.
"I'm hoping that we can get at least 10 [miles of powerline] done," Skidmore said.
Hiring a helicopter is cheaper than calling in tree climbers to reach high branches or hike in on rough terrain, utility officials said.
"Climbing is so time-consuming," Skidmore said. "He can cut more in one day than [climbers] can cut probably in two months.
"[The helicopter] comes out probably 30 percent cheaper in the long run," said Skidmore, who expects to spend $6,000 a mile for the helicopter's services.
Only two companies in the United States specialize in using helicopters to trim trees, helicopter pilot Dave Garen said.
"It's one of the most technical things you can do. It's really tough, sometimes," said Garen, whose helicoptering resume includes firefighting, stringing utility wire and oil and gas seismic surveys.
Garen has to concentrate on keeping his saw vertical -- even if that means letting the wind blow his Hughes MD 500 helicopter to and fro.
"I had to fly backward [Tuesday] to keep the limbs from moving," he said. "You have to trim in different directions, depending on what the wind's doing."
Garen's not complaining, though.
"I'm pretty lucky to have a job that I love," he said.
The helicopter's saw was custom built by Dee Haddock, who founded Rotor Blade in 2008 with his brother Ashley Haddock.
"My daddy's been a crop duster all his life," Haddock said, explaining how the siblings got into the aerial vegetation management business.
Haddock's saw uses a four-stroke Kohler engine that spins the 25-inch-diameter, belt-driven, circular sawblades at 3,000 rpm. The saw has its own fuel supply. The pilot operates the saw by remote control.
Developing the saw took Haddock "a lot of trial and error in the beginning."
"I can probably build one now for $45,000. The first one cost me $180,000," he said.
For safety reasons, the expensive saw can be quick-released from the helicopter.
Haddock's company has an "unparalleled" safety record, he said. But tree-trimming by helicopter has risks.
"The man who invented it got killed doing it about 20 years ago," Haddock noted.