The 130-metre-tall Aqaba flagpole in Jordan
Marc Summers and David Chambers have a pretty unusual job. Together, through their company Trident Support Corporation, they build the world's tallest flagpoles for the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia and the Middle East.
The pair came along at the right time; over the past decade, a largely unnoticed arms race has played out across that part of the world. And not over anything so prosaic as tanks, heat-seeking missiles or armed drones, but rather massive fucking flagpoles. Currently, the world's tallest flagpole – standing at 165 metres high – is in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The previous record was held by by Baku, Azerbaijan – at 162 metres – and, before that, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan at a paltry 133 metres. Trident built all three of them.
I first heard about the company while working in Tajikistan, where an NGO worker described this bizarre competition for Earth's biggest flagpole as a "dictators' dick-waving contest". But locals in Dushanbe seemed genuinely effusive about their record-breaking structure, and I was fascinated as to how an American start-up had managed to carve themselves such a weird niche – capitalising on this odd wave of global flagpole envy. So I gave them a call to talk about it.
Marc (left) and David meeting King Abdullah of Jordan
VICE: Hey guys. So how did Trident start? I can't imagine it was easy to spot a gap in the market for giant flagpoles.
Marc: If you'd told me 15 years ago that we were going to be building flagpoles as our primary business, I would have said you were crazy. We started out 18 years ago, working in defence logistics, and we were working in Abu Dhabi when our business sponsor – a fairly influential person in the UAE – came to us and said they wanted to build a flagpole. He'd been to Mexico, seen some big flagpoles there and thought one would look great in Abu Dhabi as a monument to the ruler. They trusted us and asked if we could do it. So we said, "Well, we haven't built flagpoles, but how hard can it be? How big do you want it, sir?" And he said he wanted the tallest in the world.
And the business of making huge flagpoles was born.
Yeah. After that, we started getting calls from around the region. One came in from the Royal Hashemite Court in Jordan, saying King Abdullah wanted us to build a world record flagpole in Amman. It was just after 9/11. I’d been recalled to active duty as a US naval officer, and Dave rings and says, "Hey, we've got this opportunity in Amman – what do you think we ought to do?" We decided to take it on, got out of defence logistics and have focused only on poles since then.
David: One thing to add is that we didn't identify a gap in the market; there was no market. We fell into the first pole and, all of a sudden, boom – we created a market. We created our own demand.
Do you normally seek out clients or do they come to you?
Nowadays, people are knocking down our doors for flagpoles. Typically, to propose a world record flagpole, you need a connection that can go all the way to the top. No one's going to build the world's tallest flagpole in any country without the highest levels of approval. We've had tonnes of people who claim to be able to represent us and say they have connections and can get approvals at the top, but these middlemen never deliver.
David with President Ilham Aliyev at the Azerbaijani opening ceremony
Are there any other big players in the huge flagpole industry other than Trident?
Here's the thing – there are a lot of big contracting companies out there who look at these projects and say, "If these guys can do it, so can we." Sometimes on the smaller ones – 50 or 60 metres – they’ll win the bid and they'll build one flagpole, then that's it – they never build another. We build more flagpoles over 100 metres than every other flagpole company in the world combined. No one’s built a world-record flagpole in the last 12 years but us.
Who had the record before you?
Marc: We tried to figure out what the tallest flagpole was when we began working on the Abu Dhabi pole, but there was a lot of conflicting information as to what the definition of a "flagpole" is. Guinness World Records said it was in North Korea, but we looked at it and it's actually just a radio tower with a flag on top. So Dave got in touch with Guinness, and they ended up creating a new category of “unsupported” flagpoles, which is what most people consider a normal flagpole.
Dushanbe, Tajikistan's record-breaking flagpole (Photo by Rob Price)
It's an unusual job – what's the strangest thing you've had to do as a result of your work?
Marc: Some of the places we've worked… you always end up having to wing it, despite the best planning. In Amman they brought in a crane barely tall enough to do the job. They built a five-metre compacted mound to balance the crane on top of so it could reach the top of the pole. We're lifting the last section when we find we're about four inches short of getting it up, and there isn’t a taller crane in the entire country.
David: We ended up fashioning a makeshift extension to the man-basket with a counter-levered arm on it. It was wild to go 127 metres up and just try to wiggle this thing on top of the flagpole. But I think one of the craziest things we've done is build a world-record flagpole in Baku, Azerbaijan – one of the windiest cities in the world. The previous record was 133m, and we agreed to do 162m, which is a huge leap in height – we normally only go up one or two metres at a time. It took us months, simply due to delays with the wind. You'd get one section up, then a windstorm would hit and last for two weeks and we could do nothing.
What do you think it is that drives people to want the world's tallest of something?
David: You get a lot of very patriotic people in this part of the world. I thought Americans were patriotic, but when it comes to the biggest and the highest, you cannot beat the natural pride of people in this part of the world.
David and others at the top of Tajikistan's world-record flagpole
So you'd say these are more symbols of national pride than vanity projects?
David: I wouldn't call it vanity – these people are simply proud of their achievements. Forty years ago, these guys had nothing. Now, these countries are built up to world-class standards, and people are flocking to visit. They're proud of that and it translates into national pride.
Have you been approached by any Western governments looking to build flagpoles?
Marc: We’ve been approached, but the problem in a lot of places is zoning laws and where you get the funding from. We've had conversations with a variety of groups in the US and other Western countries, but nothing's come to fruition yet.
Okay. Do you have any record-breaking projects currently on the go?
There are a couple of irons in the fire, but we’d prefer not to say which. There are some in the Middle East and Central Asia that may come to fruition within the next couple of months. They're in the region of 180 metres.
What do you do if you have multiple countries that all want the record? They can't all have it.
David: It never really comes off where two countries sign at the exact same time, but it is a quandary. The guy who signs up first should be rewarded, but it's the second guy who gets the more lasting record.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @robaeprice
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