Nothing scares helicopter pilots more than wires. Flying into a wire is often fatal. What worries the pilot is that wires are hard to spot. The trick is to look for the towers. Once you see the towers, you can spot the wires strung between them.

But not always.

In January, a California Fish and Game helicopter flew into wires near Auberry, California. Four died in the ensuing crash. Two families have now sued Southern California Edison, alleging that theTana Ball power company should have marked its wires with orange balls to make them more visible.

The twist to the case is that the helicopter did not strike the 2” thick high tension wires that carry electricity.  Rather, it flew into thinner, harder-to-see “static lines” that were strung above the high tension wires.

From one of the lawsuits:

The transmission lines directly over Willow Creek span 3,000 feet from tower to tower. . . Static lines are normally within several feet of the power transmission lines however on the 3,000 foot span the static lines were constructed and maintained so as to be significantly elevated above the power lines. . . . helicopter pilots flying in and about transmission lines would form the belief that the static lines would be maintained at the approximate same distance above the power lines . . . Because of the size of the static lines, they are nearly invisible until they are within about 285′ so that at a nominal speed of 60 knots the pilot has no more than 2.8 seconds to observe the lines and avoid them whereas with colored ball warnings on the lines they are easily seen from a safe distance to allow pilots to identify the lines and to easily avoid the hazard of them.

Here is a photo of marker balls installed on a nearly invisible static line, and the high tension wires that hang below.  (This is not the accident site.)  Note what a difference the balls make.

Wire Ball Markers