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The video High power line workers shows linemen servicing a live high voltage transmission line. As the helicopter approaches the line, the lineman reaches out with a metallic wand that is conductively connected to the helicopter and a standing discharge appears between the line and the wand.

Lineman approaching high voltage transmissions line on helicopter

Standing discharge between wand and power line

What is going on? A significant amount of energy appears to be flowing between the line and the helicopter, but a complete circuit does not exist because the two bodies are only connected by a single conductor. Some answers to related questions imply that a single conductor can't electrocute a person:

AC or DC, you only get electrocuted if current passes through your body... Touching just one wire at a time gives the current nowhere much to go. (Source)

You will not get a shock unless you complete the circuit to ground. This is why power lines can be worked on while live, from a helicopter. (Source)

However, the video makes it clear that a significant amount of energy is flowing. Another answer claims that a body (e.g. bird) approaching a high-voltage line would only experience a transient current:

[I]nitially there's a potential difference between the wire and the bird and there would be a (very short lived) transient current which is similar to electrostatic discharge you feel when you touch an object with electrostatic charge build-up. (Source)

But the discharge in the video appears to be sustained instead of short-lived. Another poster states that the discharge is deadly and the conductive wand is essential for the linemen's safety:

[T]he initial equalization process [between the helicopter and line] would kill [the linemen] if the arc went through [his] heart instead of the conducting [wand]. (Source)

Some answers speak of capacitance, high electric fields and corona discharge. How can one understand the flow of electromagnetic energy and charged particles between the two bodies as the helicopter approaches the line?

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    $\begingroup$ 1. There is parasitic capacitance between the helicopter and the ground (and to the wire carrying the other phase), so a complete circuit is formed by displacement current through these parasitic capacitors. 2. The wand probably contains a large resistor to deliberately slow down the transfer of charge, and that is why the arc is sustained for so long. $\endgroup$ – The Photon Feb 6 '16 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @The Photon, 1. If displacement current is what is completing the circuit, does the circuit involve the line, helicopter and ground or just the line and helicopter? The latter is easier for me to visualize but the former may be correct. 2. That makes sense and could at least partially explain it. Would the arc be sustained as long if the power line were carrying DC instead of (presumably) AC? $\endgroup$ – Shane Claggett Feb 7 '16 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ The helicopter's moving blades accumulate static charge, which is a high voltage with respect to the ground. The moving, charged blades also ionize the air around the helicopter, making the air more conductive than normal, so arcing will occur when the helicopter gets close to the ground. It's the lineman's job to make sure this discharge happens in a controlled manner. It's a dramatic case of static discharge, like when you touch a doorknob on a day when the air is at a low humidity. $\endgroup$ – Phil M Nov 21 '18 at 6:01
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I understand that the question is very old but I think it is a really good question and deserves a clarification in the form of another answer.

There is another video that highlights the process better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPNK7bc2qvM

The sequence of events in the video is as follows:

  1. The wand is placed in the proximity of the powerline so that an arc is initiated. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPNK7bc2qvM&t=128s

  2. The arc disappears only when the wand is placed on the powerline, also a separate wire is clamped to the powerline while the wand is still on the powerline1

  3. Once the work is done, the wand is on the powerline1 and the clamp is now being disconnected.

  4. As the helicopter and the wand leave the powerline, the wand creates an arc again! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPNK7bc2qvM&t=172s

Certain facts are also clear:

  • Powerlines are AC so the potential on the powerline is always alternating

  • Before helicopter connects to the powerline, the potential on the helicopter is constant (whatever the static value is).

  • The arc is present in both cases: when the helicopter arrives and when the helicopter leaves.

  • Workers wear Faraday cages

So, what is going on is the following:

  • As the helicopter approaches the powerline, there is a potential difference between the two (one is AC while another one is constant).

  • This voltage induces a current. That is, a huge number of electrons are sucked into the powerline from the helicopter in one half-cycle of AC. Then, on the second half-cycle of AC, the huge number of excess electrons are shoved into the helicopter by the powerline.

  • This current is always there while the helicopter is connected and the work is being done. There is no true "equalizing" between the helicopter and the powerline. This current goes either through the wand or through the clamp. This is obvious when the helicopter is departing and the clamp is disconnected since the same arc is produced again.

  • However, the worker wears a Faraday cage so this current flows through the Faraday cage rather than through the worker's body. In other words, while the powerline shoves huge number of electrons back and forth, the left arm and the right arm of the worker is still exposed to the same potential so the electrons don't actually move through the worker's body.


Footnotes:

1 In the video the worker makes the utmost effort to keep the wand right on the powerline when he is connecting or disconnecting the clamp.

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  • $\begingroup$ > "Before helicopter connects to the powerline, the potential on the helicopter is constant (whatever the static value is)" This isn't quite so. Potential of the helicopter depends on the potential of the powerline and the conductivity situation in the air between the two. Helicopter's potential isn't equal to powerline's unless they are in contact, but still helicopter's potential oscillates with the same frequency and almost same phase that powerline's potential does. The closer a body is to the powerline (without conducting connection), the closer its potential to that of the powerline. $\endgroup$ – Ján Lalinský Mar 29 at 0:24
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The helicopter and the power lines are at different potentials, the difference being so great as to cause the air in between to become a conductor. If you applied such a potential difference across a line worker it would probably result in death. You will note that the line worker is holding a metal stake which has a "pointed" end. This increases the induced E-field around the point and thus increases the chances of the air becoming a conductor around the pointed end.

You can think of the helicopter as a capacitor (a device which stores electric charge) whose capacitance is much greater than that of a bird and so it takes much more charge to make the voltage of the helicopter to rise than for the bird.

As the charge flows between the wand (connected to the helicopter by a conducting cable) and the power line the helicopter charges up so that its potential moves towards that of the power line. No significant charge through the line worked because it looks as though non-conducting gloves are worn. Whilst this is happening any sharp edges or points on the helicopter will possibly start making the air a conductor. Charge from the helicopter would be sprayed out from these edges and points and this is called corona or silent discharge. It is what you hear when you walk under a power line and it is what can produce interference on your car radio.

Eventually the potential difference between the power line and the helicopter is low enough for the helicopter to come close enough so that the line worker can connect a conducting wire between the helicopter and the power line so that they and the line worker, stay at the same potential.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks Farcher, that helps, but I'm still a bit confused how the discharge is sustained for so long. @The Photon pointed out that there may be a large resistor in the wand, which would slow the current down and a least partially explain it. Does the fact that the line is carrying AC play a role? In other words, is the capacitance of the helicopter alternately being charged positive and then negative, with energy and electrons "sloshing" back and forth as reactive power? $\endgroup$ – Shane Claggett Feb 7 '16 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ I think that it takes a long time to equalise the potentials given that some of the charge will be leaking away from the helicopter. $\endgroup$ – Farcher Feb 7 '16 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Shane There is no "sloshing" going on. That only happens when you have an alternating source. Yes, capacitors store charge, but that's as far as that analogy can go. The helicopter is storing charge, just like you do on a dry day when you touch a doorknob and notice the discharge; it's a static charge. Even if you took a charged capacitor and discharged it all of a sudden, there would be no "sloshing," it would just discharge in one direction until it was gone. I think a resistance in the wand would completely explain the long duration, though I don't know myself whether or not it's in there. $\endgroup$ – Phil M Nov 21 '18 at 6:16

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