Condor Duty Stories

28th August 2004

If electrics were a fraternity then Condor duty would be their initiation. I'm sure many of you can remember long, lonely, ball freezing cold nights 60 or 80' in the air with nothing to do but refocus a 12K every few hours. I'm 23 and have been working professionally for about a year and have served Condor duty a few times now.

Last fall we were shooting a low budget, straight to video horror movie in the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles. I was up in an ancient Condor babysitting a 4K fresnel. Eventually the long ass night came to an end and the gaffer radioed up to me to tell me that I could come down. I attempted to fire up that beast and was greeted with a grinding noise. All subsequent attempts to start it resulted in more grinding, coughing, and other scary noises. Point is, I couldn't start it. And nobody on the ground could get it to either.

To make a long story a little shorter, the production designer happened to have climbing rope and a harness in his car. He tossed it up to me (I was only 35 or so feet up). But I didn't know how to repel down properly. So after I attached the carabineer he strapped himself in and tied the other end to his car. He had somebody drive the car away from the Condor which hoisted him in the air. The whole time I was scared that this was going to cause the Condor to tip over. But, alas, he got to the basket and showed me how to repel down and then he repelled right after I got to the ground. Turns out that the Condor had run out of fuel.

Does anybody else have any stories? Post 'em!

And does anybody know anything about remote controlled Condor mounts? I've heard about them but have never used them. How popular are they? Having a guy up in the basket all night seems like such a waste of resources.

Alex Markle
LA based set lighting technician

>...Turns out that the Condor had run out of fuel....Having a guy up in the >basket all night seems like such a waste of resources.

Yeah, he could have been refuelling the condor. Your story had me LOL although it must have been terrifying at the time.

I've put my time in the condor. The worst, IMHO, is a cold, rainy, night when your sitting under a tarp for hours.

I did have an experience with a platform lift on a job in NY. The shoot was on the second floor of a long pier out over the Hudson. You could drive the lift under the building to the end and come outside to a dock. From there you could raise the platform to unload equipment to the second floor shoot and then use the lift for an exterior light. At least, that was the plan.

The shooting crew went out to shoot pickups in Manhattan while we loaded in early in the morning. We loaded the scissor lift up with most of the gear right off the back of the truck. It was filled up. When the grip tried to start it up we heard a snapping sound and then the starter spinning.

After much diagnosis (arguing), there lots of expert mechanics on a shoot when the need arises, we decided that the starter gear or the flywheel had broke. A new lift would be three hours into Manhattan during rush hour. So we scrambled and proceeded to disassemble the starter with barely the right tools. Finally, we found the missing teeth of the flywheel, inched the flywheel forward to line up good teeth, and reassembled the starter. Viola!

It started right up and we drove the lift to the end of the pier and loaded into the location. The whole crew was glad we fixed it to avoid a long and costly load in.

About ten minutes later the shooting crew arrives. The producer (from LA I might add) immediately jumps all over us about how long the load in is taking and start to disparage the NY crews. We explain to him the problem we solved but he simply dismissed it and told us to hurry as we were way behind schedule.

You can imagine the tone set by the producer for the rest of the shoot. We still managed to catch up to the schedule. But that producer managed to make very few friends that day.

Best Regards,

Jim Sofranko

Alex Markle writes :

>If electrics were a fraternity then Condor duty would be their initiation. >Eventually the long ass night came to an end and the gaffer radioed up >to me to tell me that I could come down. I attempted to fire up that beast >and was greeted with a grinding noise.

I'm a cameraman and I've been stuck at full height in a Condor that wouldn't re-start. But it was a simple matter to come down. All aerial lifts are required by law to have a manual means of lowering the basket. It won't suck in the arm, but if there's physically room to lower the fully extended arm you can get down. Just be sure you and everything else is tied in securely, better yet, lower everything you can down first by rope (Fortunately we had a pulley and a rope for bringing up mags.) and make sure that the guy working the control has a gentle touch or you will feel like some giant is trying to shake you out of the basket -- which you may or may not enjoy.

>And does anybody know anything about remote controlled Condor >mounts? I've heard about them but have never used them. How >popular are they?

If you're referring to Musco's and the like, they are terrific. But they are not cheap to rent.

>Having a guy up in the basket all night seems like such a waste of >resources.

Maybe, but it can be very cost effective.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

I'm sure that everybody who has ever operated a condor has a story. Here's my own favourite :

It was the last night of the show, made-for-cable movie, been working 13-17 hour days the whole show. As 3rd electric I pulled condor duty and thought it would be just fine, warm beautiful summer night. The evening started out okay even though I had to maneuver the lift around and over some power lines to get to the right spot (ah foolish youth). My 12k and 2 6k pars were focused and set and everything was great. Until :

As is normal in Arkansas in the summer, thousands of moths were drawn to the light. I had a sound blanket clipped to the basket to shield me from the brunt of the moths, and sat underneath on a full apple. I had done this many times with no problem, but this night:

A large moth landed on my head and crawled right up in my left ear and started scrabbling around on my ear drum.

Later I heard that having this happen has driven people crazy, and I believe it. It's difficult to describe what a hellish sensation it really is.

I had nothing with me up in the lift that would reach in my ear. After about 30 seconds of misery I called my gaffer on the radio. He suggested shining my MagLite in my ear and maybe it would back out toward the light. No luck.

So, I had to summon up enough concentration to pilot the lift back around the power lines and down to the ground, where the paramedic on the set was waiting with a pair of haemostats. Very embarrassing. The gaffer asked if I wanted someone to take over, and I told him no, I'd rather go back up and do my job. But this time with cotton in my ears.

So I jump back in the lift and as the lift rises back into position, I hear the whole crew break out into applause! Felt pretty good, as I was a bit humiliated. After I got my lights back up and focused, the gaffer called me again on the radio and said:

"By the way, the paramedic has told me that the moth was a female and did lay eggs in your ear!" Funny guy.

After wrap was called, and as the sun came up and I was driving my lift back to camp, someone called out to me and told me I won the wrap pool of $150.

I never found out if it was rigged.

Moral of the story: Use Cotton In Your Ears.

Guy Galloway

Alex's story is scary for a couple of reasons :

1/. Hoisting another 200lbs into a loaded condor, especially by pulling with a vehicle, could, in some circumstances, easily pull it over. Once two wheels are a little bit off the ground, the game is pretty much over. Alex, the designer, and anyone they might have hit on the way down are lucky.

2/. Every aerial lift device that you can rent has a provision to lower the basket to the ground without power. Many condors have two such methods : There is sometimes an emergency mode that lets you run the pump on the starter motor to get down. There is ALWAYS a mechanical valve somewhere on the chassis that can be opened to let the pressure out of the hydraulic cylinder that holds up the arm. As has been noted, the ride down can be bumpy.

OSHA rules require that an operator be trained on the device.

Technically, the guy delivering the condor can explain its operation to the PA or location person who is there to receive it and the renter's liability is pretty much taken care of. OSHA mandates that every lift has an instruction manual with it. Often this is on the chassis in a clear tube, but sometimes it is mounted up in the basket in a clear tube.

People get killed and maimed in Condors all the time, not just in our industry. Before you go up in a condor, you owe it to yourself to read the instructions provided, so when shit happens (or fails to happen when you push the button) you know what to do - or how to talk someone through finding the valve and getting you down.

Since Condors are not actually designed for lighting, (they are personnel lifts) there is precious little margin for error designed into the capacities. IATSE Local 728 now teaches a separate safety course specifically relating to use of Condors and scissor lifts as lighting platforms, and the course involves doing the math that relates to working safely close to the capacities of the lifts (and taking into account cable, wind-loading, etc.)

Sorry to sound so preachy, but I have worked on a lot of movies and seen even more, and I cannot remember a single one that was worth getting hurt over.

I'm not risk-averse I commute to work on a motorcycle in LA (and did in NY for years before that) and I've done an inordinate amount of high rigging work, but survival involves knowing what to do to stay alive.

One of my stories :

Once upon a time, I was rigging on a set in a stage in a 50-ish foot double articulated lift (lower parallelogram arm, upper telescoping boom.) The set included a "talk show stage" which was raised - to work over it, one had to work from the stage floor and boom up and over the set. The show had a bunch of lighting truss that was there for picture as well as other truss we were lighting from, and some of the "picture" truss was rigged to move as part of the scene. In order to get to where I had to be, I had snaked my boom over one truss and under another and had 'scoped out to get to the one I was working on.

Suddenly, a stream of red hydraulic fluid started pouring out of the lift right below the basket. The machine was inundating the stage with hydraulic fluid and the basket was shaking.

The key grip told me to boom straight down and get out of the bucket, but I had woven myself into the rig. I managed, still spewing fluid, to scope in a little and to rotate the arm until I was free of the truss and stage, at which point I lowered the boom as fast as I could - figuring the lower it was when it failed completely, the less I would fall. I made it to the ground and we got the lift off the set before all the fluid had run out of it.

It turns out that a jagged bit of weld on the hose trough that led to the basket had sawn through one of the low pressure return lines from the basket. Apparently there are check valves which sometimes prevent rapid dripping in the case of loss of pressure...I am not sure whether they were active in this case, but I've been more mindful of where the arm will land if something goes wrong ever since then...

Mark Weingartner
LA based

Never walk under the Condor. I once had an AD position me and the camera truck (I was AC'ing) directly below the bucket of a fully extended Condor with a couple of 4K Pars up there.

Once I looked up and realized I got us out of there quickly, but not before a pair of pliers slipped out of the electric's belt up above and came about a foot away from making a Mitch Gross lollipop.

Another time on a stage I was reviewing dailies with a client at video village when an electric in a scissor lift nearby slipped and sent some cable dropping our way some 20 feet below. The monitor took most of it but I got the socket right in the family jewels. Not fun. I have considerable respect and keep a considerable distance from lifts now.

Mitch Gross

Speaking of going up high...

I had always loved the Titan. This was before the widespread use of remote heads (hot head etc.). It was the 'E' ticket ride of production. ...

We were on a Red Roof Inn, (chain of cheap motels in US) commercial shoot at Hoover Dam. The director wanted to get a shot of the actors standing on this protruding catwalk on the down river side of the dam. The director, (who shall remain nameless) wanted to get a shot of Martin Mull dropping his wallet to the river below, some 680 feet with the dam in the background. So, there I was sitting on the Titan, with the full 30 foot extension, swung out over the raging Colorado river for a LOCKED OFF SHOT. There was a sissy rope from my waist tied to the turret, in case I had fallen, but if so, the fall would have resulted in a pendulum swing into the cliff wall. I could look down between my feet and see the Colorado river swirling 700 feet below. No problem. Thankfully, nothing happened, nothing dropped and the cameraman and I lived happily ever after. A photo of the adventure made the cover of On Location magazine. Talk about a waste of resources.

Ed Coleman - SuperDailies
Cinematographer Supervised Video Dailies

Ed Coleman wrote :

>Thankfully, nothing happened, nothing dropped and the cameraman >and I lived happily ever after.

All that build-up, but no payoff!

Jeff Kreines

Last summer I filmed a few memorable shots atop Condors extended out over audiences during NASCAR races. I was the "B" operator driving a two-strip IMAX 3D camera, which is the size of a small refrigerator and which would temporarily block the view of (a few) rabid, (possibly) inebriated racing fans.

My Condor driver on all these occasions was selected for (a) his safe Condor skills, (b) his North Carolina accent and ability to speak "good ol' boy". (We won't be there long. Thank y'all for letting us get this shot.") and (c) his ability to catch or deflect flying debris being hurled at the camera by IMAX-impatient fans.

Gary Jones

Gary Jones writes:

>Last summer I filmed a few memorable shots atop Condors extended >out over audiences during NASCAR races. I was the "B" operator driving >a two-strip IMAX 3D camera, which is the size of a small refrigerator and >which would temporarily block the view of (a few) rabid, (possibly) >inebriated racing fans.

Definitely above and beyond the call of duty...

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

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