The air up there: City Hall tower crane operator reflects on life at the top

single-meta-cal May 18, 2023

If you suffer from acrophobia, also known as fear of heights, you wouldn’t want Chuck Nash’s job.

A man is seen at a construction site with a tower crane in the background. He's wearing a hard hat and sunglasses.

Chuck Nash stands in front of the base of his tower crane at the site of the new City Hall in downtown Huntsville. It takes him about 20 minutes to scale the ladder to the operator’s booth.

Nash, an employee for Maxim Crane Works, is the man in the “catbird seat,” operating the tower crane at the site of the new Huntsville City Hall on Fountain Circle. Turner Construction Company is managing the project, which includes about 200 other crew members.

At the May 17 “topping out” ceremony for the seven-story building, it was Nash who moved a beam – signed by City employees and leaders – into place. The $90 million project, which will improve service to citizens by putting more departments under one roof, is about a year away from completion.

“That’ll be something special because you always have a sense of pride about a job you’ve been on,” Nash said prior to the ceremony. “Plus, these guys have been wonderful. I can’t say enough good things about Turner.”

The long climb

Every morning, the 53-year-old Nash climbs 200 feet up the blue tower to his seat in the operator’s cab. Each section is an enclosed ladder, and Nash isn’t tethered.

“Takes me about 20 minutes most days,” he said with a chuckle. “No close calls yet. I keep my hands on everything at all times.”

On an average day, he starts his ascent at about 5:30 a.m. It’s important he’s in his seat and ready to start the day by 6 a.m., which is when other crew members clock in.

“I’ve seen some really pretty sunrises,” he said.

Once Nash hits the top of the ladder, he then opens a metal hatch door to enter the operator’s cab and settle into his bucket seat.

Two joysticks control the crane’s boom arm, jib and winch. Behind Nash’s seat is a 480-volt electrical panel powering the crane’s every move.

A large tower crane can be seen over downtown Huntsville at the site of the new City Hall.

To reach the crane operator’s booth, Chuck Nash has to scale a 200-foot ladder each morning. It takes him about 20 minutes to reach his seat.

Nash does have a small refrigerator and microwave. He’s also got the best view of the City.

In addition to those sunrises, he’s seen wildlife in both human and animal forms. He’s fond of two red-tailed hawks who fly by regularly as well as a falcon.

Nash also witnessed a car driving into a pond at Big Spring Park.

“I actually watched that happen and took a picture of it,” he said.

When asked about the restroom facilities, Nash immediately lets out a laugh.

“Yeah, someone’s always asking me about that,” he said. “I usually ‘go’ before I go up, but I have some facilities up there, just in case.”

And while Nash is the only person who occupies his office, he’s never alone. Workers on the ground communicate with him regularly through three radios and Nash’s own cellphone.

When asked if he’s the quarterback of the construction crew, Nash is quick to downplay his role.

“I’m just one tool,” he said. “The guys on the ground are the ones who really make it happen.”

A specialized skill

It would be fair to say there’s no other job in the world like a tower crane operator.

Nash has worked in tower cranes about six years, though he’s been in the industry about 25.

Crane operator Chuck Nash with the city skyline in the background as well as the boom jib from his crane.

For now, tower crane operator Chuck Nash has arguably the best view in the City of Huntsville. In the background are Big Spring Park and the Von Braun Center.

“I started out as a crane mechanic and progressed over time,” he said. “Smaller cranes can be difficult to run, but tower cranes are a huge challenge because the base moves, the cab moves, the boom … everything moves. It’s difficult to keep it all under control, but I enjoy the challenge.”

He explained items like the 10,000-pound concrete bucket are easier to move than lighter objects like two-by-fours because heaver objects are more stable.

“Each joystick does two functions,” Nash said. “The crane itself moves so much that you have to constantly move it back it forth to keep everything nice and straight. The base twists 3-4 feet, and the boom moves up and down 10-15 feet.”

Not only does an operator need the know-how, but there are plenty of other factors at play, including Mother Nature.

On a recent day, Nash knocked off early due to high wind. He has monitors in the operator booth that record wind speeds. An app on his phone tells him if lightning has been detected in the area.

Nash affirms the job isn’t for the faint of heart.

“I guess I’m a thrill-seeker,” he said. “I love to travel and scuba dive, too.”

Off the clock

Nash believes he’ll be in the operator cab at the new City Hall through August, though his work could be done sooner.

“Everything seems to be moving right along,” he said.

When asked how much longer he’ll continue to go up and down a tower crane’s narrow stairs, Nash said he plans to work at least eight more years. He doesn’t know where the next job will be, but an opportunity is always there when he’s ready.

The sun sets over downtown Huntsville as captured in a photograph by crane operator Chuck Nash.

Tower crane operator Chuck Nash said sunrises and sunsets are two things he loves most about his job.

A native of Rex, Georgia, Nash has enjoyed his time as a temporary Huntsville resident. He’s been living in a motorhome at Ditto Landing.

He generally takes a month or two between jobs to pursue his other interests. When his time in Huntsville is over, he’ll head to Wyoming to do some fly fishing.

Huntsville, and the City Hall project, have left a lasting impression.

“I love it here because there’s so much to do and the people have been great,” he said.