Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, September 3, 2010

NPR's summer jobs series

Enjoyed this series a lot, and the way it gave listeners the opportunity to speak for themselves. My jobs through graduation: construction work, haying, summer camp counselor and cook, freight handler in an oil warehouse, roofer, bus driver, law clerk, freelance writer, and a brief stint of logging in Missouri and mining in New Mexico.

Most miserable times on a job: installing fiberglass insulation in an attic in July 1980 – it was so hot that I started feeling cool and knew it was time to get out. Flip side of that: standing in a January blizzard in North Dakota as a reporter, watching tower hands stumble around trying to find structural steel in hard-packed drifts. Their Bobcat kept running into buried steel so they gave it up.

Though I had on every bit of arctic gear I had bought while living in Fairbanks, Alaska, the 30-mph wind was cutting through every gap and I was delighted to head for shelter when they did.

Sounds dangerous but wasn't really: working with high explosives on a construction job. As long as some critical mistakes are avoided, modern nitrate explosives (we used DuPont's Tovex, plus detonating cord for the primers) and electric detonators are quite safe to handle. Odd fact: when a cartridge is cut open, Tovex has the appearance of tapioca pudding.

Sounds risky and it was: Most dangerous five minutes had to be riding on an MD 500 helicopter with a power line maintenance crew in Pennsylvania. Their job was to replace metal spacers that separate the conductors of a high voltage power line. I think of it as hazardous not because the powerline was energized (it was, at 230Kv), or because the crew lacked skill (they were very good) but because the situation had no room for error or malfunction.

Normally, almost any industrial operation has enough slack – call it margin of error -- that one mishap doesn't turn into a disaster, but this job had no slack. It was a single engine helicopter hovering at a low altitude, so an engine failure or rotor strike was guaranteed to end in a crash; the work required the pilot to hover the left side of the aircraft within a foot of the power line with his main rotor overlapping the line, and the tail rotor within two feet; and as an observer I didn't get a crash-rated seat. The pilot had a military-style model with shock absorbers to cushion a vertical impact and save helicopter pilots from permanent back injury (think compressed vertebrae) in the case of a crash, but in the back seat I had a plywood special. Anyway, it was a thrilling chance to see experts at work and it turned out fine but it's not something I would want to do on a regular basis.

Stuff I'd have to do more to be safe: cutting down trees with a chain saw. Even with all the safety devices and PPE this takes constant attention and I found when I got tired the odds of a mistake went way up. The mishaps I've had have been comparatively minor (except for one cut that got infected and took some special antibiotics.) The dilemma is that it takes a lot of hours to be good, but using one for lots of hours is also risky. I can see why logging is one of the riskiest jobs there is.

Most motivated moment: my brothers and cousin Rich had the chance to do some drilling on a mountaintop in New Mexico, for a gold company that needed work done so as to hold its claim. Our job was to get up there towing an air compressor and use a jackleg to drill holes in the rock face and collect rock samples to bring back. The compressor was a good sized one and burned a lot of gasoline so we brought along a drum of fuel, which we decided to leave chained upright on the back of the truck since it weighed about four hundred pounds. One night a thunderstorm came up and we realized at about the same moment that the pump handle on the drum would act a lot like a lightning rod once rain started, which would put water on the tires and act as a ground. The next thought: the image of a fireball in the middle of our camp, like in the movies. With one mind we piled out of our sleeping bags and divided up the work: One man to unscrew the pump and close up the hole with a bung, two guys to clear a path through the junk on the flatbed, and one to round up a pair of timbers so we could roll it off. Within two minutes we had the drum off the truck and laying sideways in the lowest spot available. Teamwork!

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