Operating the bucket of a diesel powered, hydraulically operated earth moving equipment is a lot like wearing the mech-suit from Aliens. If you consider your arm a system made up of bones, muscles, and tendons, then the boom and bucket linkages of an earthmover are pretty much a direct analog. Instead of a hand there's a giant steel bucket or blade, hinges and pins act like tendons, and hydraulic cylinders are basically big-ass muscles.
Getting the hang of operating these big machines isn't as difficult as you might think. Move the left hand joystick of a Caterpillar D4 tractor up and the tractor treads plod forward, slowly, but with enough authority to knock down nearly any wall or tree that would dare to block your path. Finagle the right side joystick correctly, and your dozer blade extends out and down, cutting an even path in the earth in front of you.
If you ask any heavy equipment operator about the job, most would tell you it's cool to wield that kind of muscle — but then note that no one in their right mind will let you. Since 2012, the company Extreme Sandbox, has offered this rare chance to civilians in Minnesota, providing the chance to drive power hungry dirt movers for anyone with a few hundred dollars and a morning or afternoon to spare.
"People drive by these machines every day," says Randy Steger, Extreme Sandbox's owner. "They see them, but they never think they run them themselves. But they can. We provide the machines and training that make it possible."
Located about half an hour away from Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, Extreme Sandbox gets wannabe heavy equipment operators in the cab fast. An hour or so of classroom time gives you the basics of safety and machine control meaning you're ready to hop in the cab and start digging. Kill-switch-equipped instructors always stay close by, providing enough instruction and guidance to allow novices to safely operate the crawler treads, sticks, and booms on a Caterpillar 315 Tractor Excavator or a D4 Bulldozer.
Constant communications between operators and instructors is maintained via a two-way wireless headset, through which instructors tell their charges exactly what to do in order to make a nine ton bulldozer or 16-ton excavator traverse an obstacle course, knock away junked cars from their paths, and even play a hole or two of heavy equipment golf.
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