For the next year and a half, Jay Kelso will hold the highest position in Scottsdale.
It’s 255 feet above ground, to be precise.
Kelso is the guy who sits in the tower of the crane on the southwest corner of Scottsdale and Camelback roads where the Scottsdale Waterfront Project is taking shape.
Five days a week since April 1, the 41-year-old Kelso has navigated the 260 stairs leading up to the tallest structure in town. The crane is 280 feet tall but sits in a large hole.
By contrast, the AmTrust Bank building at 6900 E. Camelback, Scottsdale’s tallest permanent structure, rises 141 feet.
"I don’t count the steps," said Kelso, sweat seeping from under his hard hat after making the descent. "That’d be pretty hard on a guy."
Hard is only one word to describe the job Kelso does for Opus West Corp. of Phoenix. Tedious, precise, scary and dangerous might complete the definition of a high-flying crane operator whose world is a 6-by-5-foot "skybox."
"I’m old enough to know better, you’d think," Kelso said. "The climb up isn’t so bad. You sweat because you left an air-conditioned room you’ve been in for eight or more hours. It’s 75 or 80 when you go up (around 5:30 a.m.) and up to 100 when you get down (at 1:45 p.m.). Those hours will change when it gets hotter."
From his perch, Kelso has a terrific view of Scottsdale and downtown Phoenix. On a clear day, he can see as far as Surprise.
Kelso has been in construction 20 years, operated cranes for 10 years and worked on towers like the one at the Waterfront project for five. Towers are the structure’s vertical sections; the crane is horizontal. The apparatus weighs about 150,000 pounds, according to Kelso.
Kelso said he has most of the comforts of home in his skybox, including a fan, radio, walkie-talkie phone, shelving, first-aid kit and lunch and beverages he hoists daily on a rope-and-pulley system.
There are no bathroom facilities, so when Kelso feels the need . . . "You make do," he said. "You get very regular. When you go up those stairs, you stay up. I’ve come down twice in five years because I wasn’t feeling well."
Kelso said handling materials is the biggest and most important part of his job. He "flies" reinforced steel bars, platforms, plumbing, electronics and windows from point to point. If he slips up, someone below could be hurt. Kelso prides himself on a perfect safety record and admits he can’t listen to his radio except during lunch break.
Material placement is done with radio assistance from ground workers and hand signals. No cameras are used. "I trust myself," Kelso said. "I trust the guys on the ground because they see things I can’t."
Kelso enjoys his job, though it can be stressful.
"My mind is on the work at all times," he said.
"Construction should pick up on-site a lot soon. It pays well. I’m not getting rich, but I’m not going hungry, either," he added.
Kelso understands the dangers of his job. He said people tell his wife, Jody — who works at McKesson Pharmaceutical across from the crane — that he’s nuts. She understand her husband’s chosen path, according to Kelso.
"She’s always a little scared," he said, "but she backs me 100 percent because she knows it’s something I want to do."
Kelso said some people don’t understand why they can’t simply climb those 13 levels of 20 stairs each just to visit or check out the view.
"You don’t want people climbing for fun," he said. "It’s inherently dangerous up here. You have to have a little fear but at the same time be fearless. Anytime you’re putting heavy things above people you hope it’s rigged correctly and you don’t make any mistakes. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing at all times."
Site superintendents Ray Kettel of Mesa and Tyge Nason of Phoenix agree that Kelso is the best man for the job. He’s steady, sure of himself and dependable.
"If he isn’t up there for any reason or there’s a problem, much of the job stops," Kettel said. "He’s the heartbeat of the job."
How did Kelso pick crane work? "I simply chose it after I got into construction," he said. "My dad was an Air Force pilot and had a photo business. I tried that but found out about this."
Kettel has another theory.
"You must have been good at those crane games they have to win the toys," he said.
"Nah," Kelso said. "Those cranes are too small."