LANCASTER, TENN. — A U.S. Marine helicopter may have narrowly averted disaster here last weekend after severing a pair of static lines along a high-voltage TVA transmission system in the vicinity of Center Hill Dam.

The system was in fact out of service at the time and therefore not carrying a charge, according to TVA officials.

The incident occurred around mid-morning on Saturday. Residents in the area heard and observed at least one military whirlybird flying low to the terrain above wooded hills and hollows not far from the Caney Fork River, about a mile downstream from the Corps of Engineers dam in northern DeKalb County.

The aircraft was reported by a Marine Corps spokesman to be an AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter. Its estimated value is more than $10 million.

The helicopter collided with the TVA lines along a 1400-foot span between two rugged hilltops a short distance from Highway 141. It was able to continue flying.

An investigation is ongoing, according to Marine Lt. John Roberts, a public affairs officer. He said the helicopter was, at the time of incident, returning to its base at Marine Corps Air Station New River near Jacksonville, N.C. following a training exercise.

“Why they were flying so low, that’s a valid question as part of the investigation,” said Roberts. “We will figure out exactly how they got into that situation, why they were there, if there was something else going on.”

The cost of repairing the helicopter is yet unknown, he said. “Obviously we can assume there was damage to it, but we just don’t know the extent of that damage,” said Roberts.

There are five lines linking the transmission towers. The two uppermost cables are parallel-running “nonelectrical” static wires designed to protect the system against lightning strikes.

The entire transmission line was under repair at the time, so no electricity was flowing through the system, said Jim Hopson, TVA public relations manager.

Hopson said there’s been no formal tabulation on the cost of damages, but the Marine Corps will likely get the bill ultimately.

“The way this works is that we typically do expect the agency that caused the damage to reimburse us for cost associated with repair,” he said.

marinelinecutworker

A TVA lineman works to repair static lines linking transmission towers that a Marine helicopter severed in DeKalb County on Oct. 29.

A dispatcher at DeKalb County Emergency Communications in Smithville took a call around 6 pm Saturday from a Marine captain reporting the wire strike. TVA crews began inspecting the damage Sunday night.

A Marine helicopter was observed circling the site of the incident on Monday morning.

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Media relations contacts for both agencies said the United States military investigates all accidents and incidents involving its own aircraft.

The helicopter may have been outfitted with with special wire-cutting devices, which helped avert a serious accident. “Wire strikes…account for about 5 percent of all civil and military helicopter accidents,” according to a 2008 FAA report on the effectiveness of wire-collision protection systems.

Matt Zuccaro, president of the Virginia-based Helicopter Association International, said wire-cutters can prevent “catastrophic results” by “eliminating the possibility that you will get tangled up in the wire.”

“There is also technology that actually detects the wires,” Zuccaro said.

However, the best course of action for pilots to keep clear of power lines is to maintain a safe altitude above them, he said.

“The primary safety protocol for avoiding wires is not to be down at the elevation of the wire environment to begin with,” said Zuccaro, who has nearly 50 years experience flying helicopters, including in Vietnam and as an Army flight instructor. “We recommend that when helicopters are in operation they be up at a satisfactory cruising level — which normally might be at least 1500 feet on an average flight.”

Zuccaro said he expects a full inquiry into the incident. “The military is very good about investigating all incidents and accidents, and they have a very good safety program,” he said.

“The primary question is — and we ask this question all the time ourselves –Why was the aircraft at the altitude it was when it encountered the wires?” he said. “It is either going to be mission-related, or it is going to be another reason that brings to question, Why was the flight operating at that altitude?”

In 2009, a Marine helicopter flying from California to North Carolina struck TVA power lines in White County near Rock Island State Park. The craft was forced to make an emergency landing after offloading 600 gallons of fuel, according to news reports.

It’ll take time to overcome technological stagnation resulting from prohibition

Harvest time has come and gone for the second year of legal industrial hemp cultivation in Tennessee.

The non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana is billed as a potential boom crop in the 21st Century. It has numerous uses and applications as food, fiber, fuel and health remedies, as well as in construction materials, automobile parts, furniture and cosmetics.

But hemp’s potential has been slow to bloom in Tennessee since the state Legislature and federal government lifted the ban on growing it in 2014.

Sixty-four applicants across Tennessee gained approval by the state Department of Agriculture to grow hemp in 2016. As in 2015, licensed growers ran into headaches acquiring and sowing their seeds in a timely fashion.

Five permits were granted to Upper Cumberland growers, including one in DeKalb County and one in Cannon County for a total of four acres.

Seed Scarcities

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tightly regulate and control industrial hemp cultivation. They require that seed be imported from outside the country and certified as capable of producing only miniscule amounts of THC, the naturally occurring chemical cannabis plants generate that gives people a “high” when ingested.

“Tennessee producers are growing seed from Canada, Italy and Australia this year,” according to a state agriculture department spokeswoman.

That’s neither sustainable nor conducive to long-term growth as a crop sector, said Clint Palmer, a Ph.D. student at Middle Tennessee State University who is working to expand industrial hemp’s presence in the state.

State agriculture officials are expected to release a report on this year’s hemp crop yields later this fall.

“Without having a domestic seed source, we are not going to be doing what we need to do,” said Palmer. “My goal is to create varieties for the state, which I hope is about a five-year process.” Seed that isn’t acclimated to this region won’t produce optimum yields, he said.

The other big issue is the question of what to do after harvest. Turning hemp into goods and materials for mass markets requires industrial processing, and that requires building infrastructure, which isn’t necessarily cheap.

“We are still struggling as an industry to be able to gain legs, and that is very unfortunate for us. We don’t have the infrastructure to support processing at this time — that’s pretty much where we are at,” said Colleen Keahey, director of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association. “We are waiting to see processing become available. We hope to start engaging with other agricultural industries to possibly partner together and see how we can resolve some these problems.”

A lack of processing and hemp-product manufacturing facilities is “the gaping hole” in plans for developing a successful cannabis sector in Tennessee agriculture, according to Palmer.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” he said. “We’re kind of in a waiting game right now. People are looking for investors, trying to grow the industry.”

Presently, growing hemp for extraction of therapeutic oils is the most profitable direction to take a crop at this time — although that sector is still obscured by regulatory and legal uncertainty. Furthermore, elevated profit levels for cannabinoid medicinal compounds aren’t likely to last as other states legalize and expand hemp production, said Palmer.

“They fetch a pretty price right now, but it won’t be like that forever,” he said.

Future Holds Promise

Despite the slow start for the reintroduction of hemp, there is nevertheless “reason for hope” that hemp will carve out a productive niche on the agriculture landscape, concluded University of Tennessee plant sciences professor Eric Walker in a 2015 analysis of hemp’s prospects for the future.

“Yields, quality and consistency of today’s predominant crops have increased drastically since their introduction; therefore, it stands to reason that the potential of industrial hemp in the United States is essentially unrealized, and as these research and applied processes of introduction, development, improvement, and refinement continue, industrial hemp yields and quality will only increase,” wrote Walker. “Likewise, if industrial hemp grain and fiber products are proven to be economically viable and sustainable, industrial hemp will again resume its status as an established crop in United States agriculture.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, where hemp maintained a more prominent and indispensable role as a cash crop than in Tennessee prior to the criminalization of the cannabis plant family, China, Russia, and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s industrial hemp supply.