MOUNT VERNON — The view that Shane Davis has of Mount Vernon is a bit different than most residents'. But then, most residents aren't perched alongside a 500-foot broadcast tower.
Born in Chillicothe, Davis has ties to Knox County. His father was raised here, and he still has cousins and other family members in the area. He's had a chance to visit them while in town painting the broadcast towers for WMVO/WQIO.
Davis started painting the 500-foot tower last week. In the midst of a rain delay right now, he plans to finish the 150-foot tower Thursday afternoon.
Painting isn't new to Davis. Before going into the Marine Corps, he painted cars. Throughout his enlistment, he was a camouflage painter.
“I got to play with a lot of new equipment,” he said of his time as a camouflage painter. “I started [tower painting] in 1980 after I got out of the Marine Corps because there weren't any jobs.”
He initially worked for an independent paint contractor, but after a couple of months, he went out on his own. Through the years, he's painted scores of towers, including five 2,000-footers.
“It took about two hours to get to the top,” he said.
He's also had his share of mishaps, having fallen five times and ending up with abrasions and a damaged rotator cuff. Once he shot his leg with a spray gun and required medical care when the paint penetrated his skin.
“Luckily, I never really got severely hurt,” he said. “You don't go through this business without getting in some sort of skirmish.”
His company, Shane Davis Painting, is one of only two companies that still spray paints, a method Davis feels delivers a better-quality result.
“The other guy doesn't like going over 500 feet, so I fill a niche,” he said.
Davis used to have three crews. Now he runs one five-man crew: two spray painters, two ground men, and one hoist operator.
“We are all a bunch of old dudes,” he said of his crew. “There's no one under 40 years.
“I just can't seem to make a living on the ground, so I keep doing this,” said the 62-year-old. “I don't see me retiring until age 65.”
Unless federal regulations change, Davis has a measure of job security. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission mandate that tower owners comply with a color chart. If the color (technically, aviation or international orange and white) is not the right shade, has faded, or is severely chipped or flaking, the tower must be repainted. Frequently, that means every six or seven years.
“I am kind of like a necessary evil,” said Davis.
Putting a lighting system on a tower eliminates the need for painting unless the tower has structural issues with rust. However, lighting systems cost a lot of money and can incur lightening strikes which are costly to repair.
“[Tower owners] can have oodles of money in them,” said Davis. “It's cheaper to paint.”
After four decades in the business, Davis has learned a thing or two, one of which is not to climb too soon after eating lunch.
“There's no porta potty at the top,” he explained. “I've come down missing a sock before.”
The most valuable things he's learned is to “never stand back and admire your work.”
“Because you will fall to your death.”
And another … “This business has a lot of ups and downs.”
Davis said that “one of the neatest jobs” was in New Jersey for Lockheed Martin on a tower whose sole function was to communicate between the solar ice packs. He said the project was so hush-hush and top secret that they wouldn't allow a portable toilet on site.
Based in Florida, Davis accepts contracts nationwide and has done a few jobs in Mexico. His painting season runs from March to Thanksgiving.
In the winter, he “migrates back down to Florida,” where he paints towers at Cape Canaveral and restores old cars.