Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 11, 2012

Safety first

Greenup firm monitors Punkin Chunkin event

Mike James
The Independent

GREENUP — When the big boys play with their toys, it’s best if there are grownups around to make sure no one gets hurt.

When the big boys in question actually are grownups, and their toys are catapults and cannons capable of tossing large objects half a mile, well, they still need sober, capable adults to make sure everyone plays safe.

That’s where Todd Eastham comes in. He is vice president of McCulley, Eastham & Associates, a safety and environmental consulting firm based in Greenup.

Eastham’s firm was retained to monitor safety issues for the two-day 2012 Punkin Chunkin World Championships, where participants compete not just to see who can toss a pumpkin the farthest, but who can do it with the most aplomb and with the most outrageously over-engineered machine.

When Eastham and his associates joined the Punkin Chunkin safety team at its field in rural Delaware last week, the scene was like a cross between a county fair and an artillery barrage.

More than 100 machines bristled on the firing line like seige engines out of a medieval battle, and tens of thousands of spectators watched from a safe distance. TV cameras watched, too — the Discovery and Science channels are set to broadcast specials on the competition and the popular cable series “Mythbusters” sent correspondents to cover it.

Competition teams build giant slingshots, catapults, cannons and trebuchets out of materials that range from garage-door springs to space-age polymers. The machines have one thing in common: they harness tremendous mechanical forces to hurl pumpkins more than half a mile downrange, and without proper oversight are capable of inflicting serious injury or death.

For all their goofiness, competitors typically have some serious credentials — there are engineers, software experts, physicists and others among them — and event officials are serious about safety, Eastham said. Hard hats and safety glasses are mandatory in the launch areas.

“Our job was doing rigorous safety inspections on every machine. Over two days, we had 119 machines to inspect,” he said. That included inspecting welds, flanges, nuts and bolts, machine stability, rigging and other components. They and other safety workers also had to monitor spectators and keep them out of harm’s way.

Some of the machines were air cannons, essentially giant pellet guns that used air compressors half the size of a tractor-trailer. Others used springs wound to 80,000 pounds of tension.

Let loose at the wrong time or in the wrong direction, a pumpkin shot from one of the megamachines can hurt. Eastham knows from experience.

“It can happen and it did happen when we were there,” Eastham said. “A pumpkin flew off a trebuchet and pied.” Pied is the term chunkers use for a pumpkin that disintegrates into fragments upon launch. “A chunk the size of an apple hit me in the head and knocked my hard hat off. It felt like someone smacked me in the head. Without the hard hat, it probably would have left a welt.”

Being in the thick of the action, the Greenup consultants found themselves in front of the television cameras from time to time. The special is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving on the Discovery and Science channels, and Eastham thinks there is a good chance viewers will catch at least a glimpse of some of them.

Working the event has left Eastham and his associates with the itch to try their hand at making a machine and tossing a few pumpkins themselves. “Just for fun we may make a small catapult, not to compete, but we want to see if we can do it,” he said.

He has a six-acre field near Greenup so people in that area should not be surprised if they see flying pumpkins now and then.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.