“I like heights.”
If there’s a better reason than that to become a crane operator, Jaybo Cobb can’t think of it. He’s happiest when he’s up in the skies, looking out on a panoramic city view in a way that few others get to enjoy.
“When you’re on a crane downtown, you look at all of these people and all of the big buildings and the offices in them. Everyone is going about their day, and there’s your crane sticking up above it all — you’re the only one up there,” he says. “It makes you feel like you’re center stage because everyone is watching.”
It’s true. With Nashville’s current skyscraper boom in full swing, tower cranes are our mechanical celebrities. We tell friends about seeing them pop up in the neighborhood. We can’t help but stare when they start moving.
There’s even a map, Nashville Crane Watch, keeping track of all of the construction projects in town.
At any given time, there are more than 200 buildings in the works or planned, with 20-30 cranes dotting the landscape.
Climbing to the top
Cobb, 46, moved to Nashville when he was 5, and he’s worked in construction most of his adult life. Still, he says he has never seen anything quite like Nashville now.
He’s as busy as he wants to be — going from sitting behind the controls on one site to walking along the jib (the part of the crane the juts out and over a work site) at a different construction project, inspecting for safety. The amount of work is just fine with him since that means he can climb into another crane pretty regularly.
“It’s a new experience with every building, every design,” he says with a smile.
Cobb didn’t exactly grow up thinking that one day he wanted to operate a crane, but he did spend a lot of time clambering up ropes and trees and power line towers for fun. As a young man he signed on as a construction laborer working on the archway bridge on Natchez Trace, and that’s when his career path became crystal clear.
“There was a crane set onsite and I thought, ‘What do I have to do to get there?’” he recalls.
“I would watch that operator every day and at lunchtime I’d go up there and ask questions. Then at night I’d sneak up there and practice until I learned it.”
Old school experience
Now, Cobb quickly adds that this is not the recommended route for aspiring crane operators — It just so happened that it worked for him, way back in a simpler time in a place where he really couldn’t do much harm. He was working on a bridge with no traffic, over a river with no people, and he was just figuring out the pendulum effect of moving the crane from one spot to the next.
He did this by taking off his boot and using it for crane target practice, swinging left and observing the “drift” that he needed to account for in order to catch and drop the load.
He tried one way and then another, perfecting his control until he felt confident in his ability.
At his next construction job, he told them he had a little bit of experience on the crane and if the operator ever had to miss a day, he’d be happy to fill in.
That was pretty big news for a construction site because a crane sitting idle unexpectedly costs many thousands of dollars per week and sets back progress.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience but I had a belief in myself,” Cobb says. “I watched that crane operator every day, too, and sure enough he missed a day and I got to run the crane, and made some picks (taking up and dropping a load) and got more experience.”
His next move was to call O’Neal Ellis at Concrete Form Erectors, the man in Nashville to go to for crane work in the 1990s, universally respected and somewhat feared.
“He gave me the chance to run a crane full-time as an operator, put me in a 30-ton dadgum all-manual friction crane. That thing’s a handful,” Cobb says, shaking his head at the memory. “He gave me the experience to get my career started. Then it was one crane after another, learning more and more with each one.”
These days he works with W.G. Yates Construction, both as an operator and crane inspector. Most of his time he stays busy in Nashville, though he takes the occasional road trip to sites out of state.
What’s it like up there?
At the start of a crane-operating job, Cobb sets up the operator’s cab (about the same size as a tollbooth) with a toaster oven, George Foreman grill, microwave and mini-refrigerator so that he can have good, fresh food. In warm weather he changes clothes in the cab — from pants and boots to shorts and flip-flops — and settles in.
He’ll spend 12-14 hours a day with the crane, six days a week at times.
“It’s your home away from home up there,” he says. “You have to be comfortable.”
The work itself requires Cobb to adapt to the sway of the crane in the wind. Once the load gets hooked securely on the ground, he knows that his eyes will deceive him as he brings it up.
Sitting in that glass case, there’s nothing in his peripheral vision to steady his perspective. He can’t see the cable moving and twisting until the load reaches beyond the midway point up, and when he needs to set the load down, his eyes tell him that the building itself is moving.
“It’s an odd thing, and it takes while to get used to it,” he says. “It messes with your equilibrium, but you just look into the horizon and shake your head and get your bearings.”
Getting into the swing of things
Of course, after nearly three decades as an operator, Cobb operates a crane the way most of us drive a car, thinking without being aware that we’re thinking, and reacting when we sense something unusual.
“It’s like part of my body,” he says.
“I know what’s going to happen before it happens. Before I move it, I know how much the wind is shoving me, when I need to release my brake, when to hit my swing lever. I know how long it will take to travel down before it moves the load. A lot of times when I can see the load clearly, I can move and function the crane to be in the right spot before the workers below give me a direction like ‘swing to the right a few feet.’ I’ve got my binoculars on and I already know.”
He’s aware of the immense responsibility in his hands, both in moving objects that weigh tons and in operating the crane itself. Like many in the construction industry, he knows the stories of small mistakes that had fatal consequences. Though he has the soul of a daredevil, he is not reckless.
Inspecting cranes gives Cobb the chance to ensure other operators’ safety on job sites throughout the city, while also indulging his love of great heights. Every time he walks the length of the jib, he feels like that kid shimmying up the power line poles again, excited and hyper-aware of the danger.
“Walking out on the jib?” he says. “Me, and a lot of others like me, love it.”
“When you are out there, you’re holding your own destiny in your hands.”
“You know that you can’t make one mistake, and you can’t blame anyone but yourself if you do. I just like knowing that it’s just up to me.”
Building a new Nashville
Cobb’s next big job will be operating a crane on the site of the Virgin Hotel construction project on Demonbreun near Music Row, starting in October. That will be his third building on the street. He worked on the 1505 building, an apartment complex. Last year, he worked on the Element Music Row another apartment complex, where he got to use the crane to “bucket” concrete onto the roof, pouring the very last slab to finish it.
Once his job is done, there’s usually another year of construction work before the building is ready to open, and Cobb rarely revisits a site, though he obviously takes pride in the work he does.
He almost always takes pictures of the job sites he works on, and on his final day he’ll step back for one last look, knowing that he’s a part of something.
“When it’s done, there’s that feeling,” he says.
“When I’m dead and gone, this is still going to be here.”