As Fate Would Have It

March 22, 2018

Jim Fletcher; skier, civil engineer, and recipient of the Jan Leonard Award. Jim tells the story of his career spanning 40 years of ski industry ropeways, especially how the thin threads of an eye examination and draft lottery during the Vietnam War era allowed fate to have its way.

“I had applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and had gotten what’s called a first alternate appointment. It was a long shot to get into West Point until the guy in front of me had heart problems, and then I knew could potentially get in. A candidate went through three days of physical and medical testing, and the last medical test was an eye exam. I knew I had a problem with vision in my left eye, so I read the chart with my right and memorized it. Then the doctor covered up my good eye and with my left eye exposed said, “read the lines.” The moment of truth. Do I cheat? I ended up saying, “You know, I can’t read that particular line.” After trying multiple lenses, the conclusion was that I was non-correctible and because of this, I wouldn’t get into West Point. I was crushed. I saw this as a real setback to my future.

I received a scholarship to attend Purdue through Armco Steel and graduated with a Bachelor’s and then a Masters of Science in Civil Engineering in 1968. Looking back, had I graduated from West Point in 1967 I would most probably have been a Second Lieutenant in the war. Their life expectancy in the Vietnam War was about three and a half weeks.

My second brush with fate is when I got out of engineering school and became a 1A, which was the top of the list for the draft. I had a Civil Engineering degree so I wanted to get into the Navy Seabees (U.S. Naval Construction Battalion). That was the year the government drew a lottery for the draft. The lottery numbers were based on a drawing of birthdates, and I remember the Selective Service having the numbers in capsules, putting them into a hopper, picking them out and announcing the numbers. Mine came up as 342, which was a high number and I, for a second time for this war, was not picked.”

Rep. Alexander Pirnie drawing the first Viet Nam draft pick number, 1969
Credit: Open Source, Wikipedia

“I worked for a time at Armco Steel in Construction in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois and went out West in 1973 and continued with construction management. I was then hired as chief engineer of Heron Wright Chairlift Company for the next three years, living and working out of the Denver metro area. I had learned to ski at Aspen Highlands in 1971. Lift tickets sold for 8 or 9 dollars a day in the early 70’s, and I learned to become a competent skier after a couple of years skiing there.
In 1975 I built a home outside of Denver on the front range mountains, not far from Eldora”.

Significant standard changes with ANSI B77

“In the 1981 B77 Committee, the most prominent discussion was how to handle the new technologies. Everybody was concerned about the grandfathering of the older installations. How is the technology going to affect this older equipment? The 1982 standard was more of a reorganization of old data, than the formation of new ideas. The former had all of the lift types intermingled. This new standard was the first to divide the lift types of aerial trams, detachables, fixed grips, and service lifts.”

Joe Gmuender, George Boyden and Sid Roslund,
OITAF-NACS Conference in Ouray, CO

Death By Fork

“We had equipment sales trips that were sponsored by manufacturers like Fatzer and CWA. Sid Roslund coined them “Death by Fork” because companies who sponsored the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners would try to outdo the previous meal put on by another business. After three or four days of this, you felt like a goose stuffed for foie gras. The French conundrum is if you drink a lot of red wine, you can eat a lot of saturated fats.”

Armando Cordova, Tram Manager; Mike Deiparine, ESG Project Engineer; Jim Fletcher, Project Manager; James Bunch, Project Engineer and Jon Mauch, LPOA Project Manager.

Adventures and Avalanches with Electrical Engineer Jamie Bunch

Adventure 1: You’d Better Punch It.

“In the early 90’s, Jamie and I were on tour looking at funiculars. We were working on some projects that were looking to employ funicular technologies, so we went to Europe to travel around gathering data on existing systems. There was a system in Val D’Isere, France that we wanted to see. I remember getting into Val D’Isere somewhere around one or two o’clock in the afternoon, and it was snowing so hard the funicular wasn’t operational. Funiculars run in pretty rough weather, and heavy storms usually do not shut them down, so Jamie and I just decided to poke around the lower station a bit. At some point we figured that we ‘d better get out of town because the storm was getting worse. As we saw no tire tracks leading down the valley, we believed we were the last car out of there that night. The road was extremely steep. Jamie was in the passenger seat and as he was a curious kind of guy, he was looking uphill. Then he said, “You’d better punch it.” I didn’t question him. I did punch it and looked in the rearview mirror and saw an avalanche of trees and snow cascade behind our vehicle and close the road to Val D’Isere. We were the last ones out of Val D’Isere that day!”

Top of cabin on NYC Tram with Fred Swartzberg and Neville Sachs, 2003

Adventure #2: You’d Better Hold On.

“Another Jamie Bunch story, we were running some tests on the single span, mono-cable gondola spanning the Mississippi in New Orleans for the 1984 World’s Fair. At that time I believe the 3000’ system was one of the longest single span mono-cables in the world.

For rescue, they used a self-propelled vehicle that Poma had designed. It was basically a crawler that moved along the haul rope and went to each cabin. It would enable a rescue crew to take people out of the cabins, put them in a basket, and lower them to a boat on the river or onto land. The towers on either side of the Mississippi ranged from about 300 to 340’ feet high. My charge was to man this rescue vehicle while observing and checking the system out. The Poma designer was there and Fred Labaeye, who had helped with the construction of the crawler.

The three of us were practicing a rescue, so to speak, and it started to rain a little bit. We came to a tower where the rope on the backside of the tower and down to the station was steep, almost 30 –35 degrees on the downhill. This caterpillar crawler was made out of a hard plastic material, so when we climbed on top of the detachable grip, there was a piece of plastic connecting the two grip bodies and the crawler proceeded to slip on the plastic. It lost its grip and started downhill. I’m up on top of this vehicle and Jamie’s inside the terminal, and the thought that went through my mind was, I wonder how fast we’ll be going when we hit the terminal? Fortunately, Fred Labaeye, a very experienced guy was driving this thing and he hit the emergency brake, and one of the brakes that gripped around the rope was still down around the rope while the other had to be lifted over the rope clamp. Fred hit that and it stopped us,. This rescue vehicle weighed a couple thousand pounds but was almost horizontal with the rope as the vehicle stopped. It was scary but we survived it.”

Jim and his wife Karen

2 thoughts on “As Fate Would Have It

  1. George s. Boyden

    Jim, from experience, I realize that these are only a couple of the many ropeway stories you have survived !

    I know that the most importantance is your recognition of all of the details, sharing these and how you have communicated and educated so many people throughout the ropeway industry from a practical and solid engineering perspective !一Great article. George

  2. Jim Fletcher

    Coming from you this is most meaningful. Yes there are more stories.


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