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What's The Tallest Structure In North Carolina? A Look From Above

David Haas a professional tower climber at 1,860 feet above ground.
Jeremy Markovich
Our State Magazine
David Haas a professional tower climber at 1,860 feet above ground.

The Bank of America Corporate Center in uptown Charlotte is 876 feet tall. While it’s the tallest skyscraper in North Carolina, it’s not the tallest structure. That title goes to a television tower a half hour west of Charlotte, near the town of Dallas, in Gaston County.

As part of our ongoing collaboration with Our State magazine, reporter Jeremy Markovich takes us way up high, where we meet the man who changes light bulbs more than 1,000 feet up.

There’s a lot of good news and bad news when you go up in a television tower.

The good news, in this case, is there’s an elevator. The bad news is that it’s slow, going up 100 feet per minute, with a light around every 300 feet.

The good news is if the cables were to snap, there are automatic brakes to stop it from falling, but this elevator will not freefall down the tower. The bad news is sometimes the elevator stops — for no reason.

"I should have had you talk to my wife before we came up here," I tell the tower climber.  

The good news is when I’ve ridden the elevator as high as it will go, it’s only about a 3 feet gap between the elevator and the platform.

More good news: I’m wearing a safety harness and I’m clipped in so if I step over and miss, I won’t fall more than a foot or two.

That’s really good news because right now, at this moment, I am 1,860 feet above the ground below. That’s roughly as tall as two Bank of America Corporate Centers stacked on top of each other.

Credit Jeremy Markovich / Our State Magazine
Our State Magazine

There are buzzards circling down below us. Above me is about 150 more feet of tower and antenna. The combined height is just a few feet shy of 2,000 feet.

It’s not safe for me to go up to the very tip-top, but trust me, this is high enough. So high, in fact, that the temperature is 10 degrees colder than it is on the ground.

The ground below me looks kind of like the satellite view on Google Earth, except things are moving. Cars and trucks look like toys. And, then there’s the sound. 

"You can hear forever," said David Haas, a professional tower climber who joined me. "You can hear those trucks down there on 321. You can hear dogs bark. You can hear sirens way off. You can hear coyotes howl whenever an ambulance comes by. Because you're up above this, you can hear far, far off. Down on the ground, you’ve got all this foliage that blocks that. But up here, you can hear cars, you can hear motorcycles, you can hear stuff five miles away." 

Haas strikes me as a very mild-mannered person, which I think is probably the right temperament for this job.

"This is not a place for a thrillseeker," Haas said. "I don’t go to Carowinds. I don’t go to the amusement parks and things like that. I’m not amused by taking risks."

So how did he get into this?

"I was teaching part-time at Gaston College back that way, and one of my students was managing that tower over there, he came to my troubleshooting class to learn about electronics," Haas said. "I was going for months and weeks without even a paycheck from my normal business. So when I got the opportunity to work on those lights and that door was open, I ran with it as hard as I could."

When he’s on a tower, it's usually to fix some sort of electronic equipment. Every once in a while, he has to change a light bulb, sometimes, on the very top.

"When you climb that antenna, there’s nothing around you any more to hold on to," Haas said. "You’re strapped to this pole. And you really start [thinking] things like, 'I hope the welder that welded the flange on the bottom of the antenna had a good day.' You start thinking about things like that and your mind can play tricks on you and if you're not careful, your mind can get away from you."

I ask him if he still has fear. Does his heart race? Does he ever feel like his mind is getting away from him? How does he deal with that?

"It’s called fear management," Haas says. "You manage the fear by pushing the envelope, by pushing the limits, by finding out what you can do and what you can’t do. You learn what the limits are. You learn what’s possible."

Credit Jeremy Markovich / Our State Magazine
Our State Magazine

To Haas, it’s that mix of trust and fear that keeps him safe up there — and there’s one more thing that keeps him coming back to this job. It’s a sort of friendship.

"You kinda develop a relationship with the tower that you're on if you’re on it on a regular basis," he said. "This is an old friend to me. It’s kept me safe many, many days. I care for these towers in some way. I want to see them safe. They’ve kept me safe, if that makes any sense."

After about a half-hour of standing on a small platform at 1,860 feet, David and I get ready for the long elevator ride back down to the bottom. So, I take one more look around. From up here, you really can see everything.

Almost everything.

"You can see your house from here? No, I live back this way. I live on the other side of a ridge."

And before you ask — no, you cannot go up in this tower. I’ll let you figure out whether that’s good news or not.

This story was adapted from a podcast called “Away Message,” which is about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places and things from Our State magazine.