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A Career With a View

January 13, 2002

In a Peiner SK575 tower crane 160 feet above a Santa Monica construction site, Ron Caluya has spectacular views and a paycheck commensurate to helming a 400,000-pound-capacity machine with a boom the length of a football field. A 25-year veteran with more than 40 projects under his belt, Caluya, 47, also consults for a crane manufacturer. For a guy who began his construction career underground as a tunnel builder, he now has the best seat in the house.

How does a person train for this?

The International Union of Operating Engineers has a program for crane operators. The apprenticeship consists of three years, which include schooling and 6,000 hours on the job. It's a trade that a lot of people aren't wild about doing. It takes a unique person to get into something like this.

How do you control a crane?

It's like playing Pac-Man. The operator is in a captain's chair. He has two joysticks, one on the right that handles the hoisting up and down and one on the left that handles the trolley in and trolley out and swinging left and right. Also, you have a computer board and a monitor [with] readings of the weight capacity, distance of the trolley, wind factor, the gear modes. And you have your warning horns. It's like being on a ship.

Is there a system for coordinating lifts?

The guys on the ground signal me as to what they want picked up over the radio. I look to make sure they're rigging it right and that it's balanced. Then I make sure that the load block is in the center of the pick. I always come up really nice and easy. I bring it within a couple feet and they let me know where to set it down.

What's been your scariest experience?

In 1990 we had a four-point earthquake while we were working on the county jail in downtown L.A. I was up in my crane just watching the load whip around. When you're up, there's nothing you can do. You just have to ride the horse. [But] the worst experience was watching a guy fall over the side of a building. That was horrifying and turned my stomach over. Is it stressful to have lives in your hands?

Whatever I'm doing, I'm thinking about being safe. If I let [stress] bother me, then I don't belong up there. If I'm leery about a load, I take my binoculars out and look at the load. A lot of new technology they're coming out with on the crane will be cameras so the operator can see the load itself.

Tell us about your weirdest lift.

The most ridiculous thing was a five-gallon igloo water jug. The guys didn't want to walk it up the ladder or wait for the elevator. When a superintendent sees that, he throws a fit.

-- Andrew Vontz

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