MUSCATINE — Hovering just above the tree line, Kyle Fortune is cutting his way south along the railroad.
He and his helicopter, employed by Rotor Blade, LLC, have been the subject of five phone calls to the Muscatine Journal wondering why a “chainsaw was flying above the county.”
A few minutes east of Letts, a dirt road rolls past a crop field where a 900-pound saw with 10 24-inch circular blades descends from the sky. After each hour of trimming the trees along the railroad, Fortune touches down with his crew there to refuel his helicopter, an MD 500D.
Up in the air, Fortune is easy to see. His head and upper body hang from the egg-shaped cockpit, his eyes on the saw below, adjusting his height and position to softly rest the saw in the grass.
“You spend your whole career learning to fly a helicopter looking forward, side-to-side,” Fortune said. “This is a different kind of flying.”
Called vertical reference flying, Fortune spends most of his flight time looking down at the saw.
“I'm thinking about where I want my saw to go,” Fortune said. “It's like driving a car, you don't think about twisting the wheel, you think about where you want the car to go.”
As he flies back to the railroad track, he has just enough time to glance over the thicket of forest.
“We are down in the trees so you don't get to see as much as you would think,” Fortune said. “It's a different perspective.”
He said he doesn’t have the chance to enjoy the view very often. He spends his flight time on the radio talking to the ground crew who monitor the saw’s path through the tree line pushing timber to the side as it falls across the tracks.
“There is a lot of coordination going on,” Fortune said. “I can’t see behind me. I can't see to the right side of me. Those guys down there are a really crucial part of doing the work safely.”
Fortune admits that the mile-cut-per-hour price of a service like this is expensive. But for industries like the railroad who want to keep the miles of rail clear for commerce, the helicopter compensates its cost with its ability to access right-of-way without blocking the rails. Canadian Pacific Railway contracted Rotor Blade for the work.
The alternatives require the railroad to clear the track so that heavy equipment can travel in to cut along these paths.
“Anytime you put a piece of equipment on the track, it has to get off before the train can come through,” Fortune said. “In order to get it off, it's got to go to a crossing. It's got to go forward. It's got to go backward. If you send a piece of equipment down, it is very time consuming.”
The other choice is to send climbers along the way to cut back the trees.
“You can send in a climber for these projects along the railroad, but you still have to worry about the tree falling on the track," Fortune said. "And it's so labor intensive, it's hard to find guys that will do that stuff anymore,” Fortune said. “It takes forever and it's also very expensive.”
This is where for the last few decades, these helicopter outfits have come in handy for keeping Iowa’s almost 4,000 miles of track open.
“We can get in and out and behind and between trains,” Fortune said. “We get a couple of guys on the ground that are just there to pull the stuff off the track."
"If I have a 30-minute window between trains, I can do a cut where nobody else can,” Fortune said."
While a 30-minute window can seem negligible, Fortune said that the railroad has no illusions about its value: time is money.
“Whenever we hold up a train here, it not only holding up that train,” Fortune said. “It's holding up the workers that are loading and unloading somewhere else and the next crew that is supposed to be getting on that train. You are impacting people upstream and downstream because if that train stops here, they have to stop another one miles back.”
Fortune said his company has not had a serious accident to date but often he talks about the saw getting stuck in trees.
“It’s like swinging an ax into a tree,” Fortune said. “If you hit it in the wrong direction, that pressure bites down on the saw blade keeping it in place.”
He said that he’s been stuck hovering in place for as long as 15 minutes.
“Sometimes it takes 10 seconds. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes,” Fortune said. “There have been guys that got stuck for a lot longer than that."
Between a loud helicopter and 20 feet of carbide toothed saw, Fortune's rig is hardly subtle. His operation draws a lot of attention.
“I'll be clearing a right-of-way far away from houses, but I've been cutting and had people pop up feet in front of me. Soon as that happens I’m up in the air.”
People often come up to where he is working wanting to know what is going on.
"I love when kids come to see the copter,” Fortune said. “I shut it down. Let them come take pictures of themselves pretending to fly it.”
For Fortune, being the guy that pilots the "flying chainsaw" is just a weird part of the job.
"It's cold up there. The wind blowing on you," Fortune said. "It's just this different feeling."