"We Got Us Some Sky Today, Boy!"

It's beat the clock at high altitude as a surefooted crew builds a 500-foot communications tower

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

A tenth of a mile up, wind is nothing to whistle about. From January dawn into night, where the life-and-death seriousness of hanging by thin wires hundreds of feet aloft is punctuated by good-natured ribaldry, this tower crew stacks 20-foot sections, cinches guy wires and assembles clamps so a radio station can begin broadcasting by deadline. Following the crew up their tower, author James Chiles discovers that weather troubles are only one headache in the specialized trade of tower work.

With the proliferation of cell phones, mobile radio systems, and television and radio stations, more than 70,000 towers taller than 200 feet have sprung up around the country. Emerging technologies, such as digital television, will require as many as a thousand towers at 1,000 feet each, stretching already busy crews to the limit.

Using a "gin pole" — a metal derrick attached to a tower's side to help lift tower pieces — and pulling on the "tag line" so wind gusts don't push the pieces into the tower or under a guy wire, a crew can stack 150 feet a day — in good weather. Just climbing the tallest towers, some 2,000 feet, can take two hours. Emergency jobs, and the need to take advantage of all good weather, make for long spells from home and family. Patience and a sense of humor help. Suspended 500 feet up, a crew member describes his situation with reassuring aplomb: "Every day's a good day. A good day to be alive."

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus