Playing with a Full Deck

| September 04, 2002

There are some loads that make other drivers sit up straighter and take notice. Consider the appeal of three shiny factory-fresh Class 8 trucks, each one hoisted with its nose high in the air, being transported to a dealership by another new tractor – a caravan of four vehicles leap-frogging down the super slab in an oddly precise formation.

Unlike most loads, a load of four “decked” trucks bends three times, making them as difficult to back up as a 40-mule team. On the other hand, “they stop and turn better than the typical tractor-trailer,” says Don Mihalko, vice president of labor at Hook Up, in Macungie, Pa., where the “decking” and delivery of new vocational market Class 8s is job one.

Looking at these one-of-a-kind loads, one might imagine they are as quirky to handle as their appearance suggests. They are. Decking operations have all sorts of quirks. Take the name, for example. Decking is the proper term, despite the use of the widespread misnomer, piggybacking (which is an entirely different operation).

Why a load of trucks being dragged on their rear axles, without the use of any trailer, or other conveyance with a deck, is called decking, remains unclear.

What is now the decking industry started out using flatbeds. Howard Sober, credited with being a pioneer of decking, was a college student at the University of Michigan, when he began deliveries, hauling a truck atop a flatbed, according to Hook Up’s Carl Hamm. It was a way to make money on the weekend. The young entrepreneur delivered his two trucks and was picked up by his wife for the drive home. That was in 1917.

Today, the flatbeds are gone, replaced by saddle mounts, oak 4x4s, chain and long, steel u-bolts. Delivery is no longer a simple process of driving one truck off a dock onto a trailer to load and unchaining and driving it onto another dock to unload. Chain falls or wreckers put the noses of delivered trucks on the ground at their destination and the delivery driver has some reassembly and lubrication to do before they move.

Jerry Geake, a veteran at delivering decked trucks, makes 41 cents a mile. On average he drives somewhere between 1,800 and 2,400 miles a week. Some weeks half of those miles are driven in rental cars. After trips of more than 600 miles to final delivery, Jerry Geake flies home. He prefers the short trips because rental car miles are logged miles and he’s paid for driving them at nearly the same rate as he is paid for driving the Class 8.

Decking drivers have to return the rentals and make their way home or to the terminal by taxi. When they fly home, drivers are not paid for their time in the air and must only log those hours as “on duty not driving” if they do not take eight hours off when they get home, says Jim Geake, terminal manager at Hook Up and brother of Jerry Geake. Some drivers prefer this situation since the frequent flier miles they accumulate are theirs to keep.

If there’s no chain fall, driver Jerry Geake would have to call in a tow truck, a time consuming alternative.

Hook Up is a union operation. There is a shop steward who makes sure the dispatch board is run by strict driver seniority. Dispatch is at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. every workday.

Drivers late for dispatch lose their spot and must go to the end of the line. Drivers returning from a trip generally have 14 hours to report for their next dispatch says Jerry Geake, who likes the system. “I left to start a construction outfit once but came back seven years ago. I’m number 36 on a 70-man board. I can pretty much control my schedule to be home when I want to be home and still make good money. It took seven years to get there,” he says.

Jim Geake and his staff are responsible for making rental car arrangements and plane flights. In a sense, dispatch is a travel agent for drivers. After a delivery, drivers usually only need to make a phone call for a taxi to be taken from their last drop to an airport or a rental car counter. Back at the office, Jim Geake’s new Optimizer software tells him the cheapest and most efficient way to get his drivers back. Drivers carry a cash card and a credit card to pay out of pocket expenses.

But long before Jim Geake is planning return trips, he is putting together loads. The job is much like the job an LTL dispatcher does when it comes to load planning. Jim Geake works from experience, as well as from lists of chassis types, to put together loads that may require as many as four drops.

Chassis features like the placement of air tanks and fuel tanks, length, and length of after frame must be taken into consideration and coordinated with where each particular truck is being delivered. If a particular frame cannot be decked in the order required by the most efficient delivery route, it is generally put aside and delivered when a load can be put together to accommodate it, says Jim Geake.

Jerry Geake’s trip from Macungie to Manchester, N.H., is a four-way, meaning he has three decked trucks and a lead driven vehicle. The three decked trucks are going to Plainville, Conn., where he will either call a wrecker to lift each truck down, or use a chain fall. When Jerry Geake leaves the yard early one cold Monday, his total length is 72 feet, three feet less than the legal limit. He weighs about 72,000 pounds and is legal height only because the tractors’ stacks have been removed.

Like all drivers who do this work, Jerry Geake has both a doubles and a triples endorsement on his commercial driver’s license. To him, the wiggle in his freight seems customary. But someone unused to looking in the mirrors at 72 feet of decked trucks might think differently. Each of the three decked rigs has only one axle on the ground, the front axle being chained up. So there are a total of six axles with ground pressure, one more than the typical tractor-trailer. But there is one less axle with brakes. “The last axle’s brakes are disconnected,” Jerry Geake says.

This may seem strange, since in theory a driver does not want following weight to push him forward. But Jerry Geake has not had a problem in his years of doing this job and says that in fact, during hard braking, problems can develop from another source. The front blocking on the first saddle mount can move when the brakes go on hard, he says. Marks on the frame are evidence of some sliding even though Jerry Geake has not done any hard braking. “The higher the blocking, the more likely that mount will slide,” Jerry Geake notes.

“This system has been tested extensively,” Hamm says. “Decked units are more stable when there is no braking on the last unit. In fact, braking set up this way surpasses typical braking in stopping distance.”

Jerry Geake’s load of Class 8s is made up of vocational trucks, tractors that will become ready mix or perhaps garbage trucks (road tractors are delivered the same way, but the Macungie Hook Up operation does not deliver road trucks). There is often a great difference in how decked vehicles perform on the highway. Jerry Geake has delivered trucks with 7:27 gear ratios that will do no more than 50 miles an hour.

“It takes a very long time to get across Kansas,” Geake remarks.

Certainly the ride is not what a road driver might expect from his truck. And of course there are no sleepers, so on longer runs motels become a necessity. Jerry Geake takes gear for two days, including heavy coveralls for the long hours he spends outside in all weather unloading. He takes a very heavy tool kit as well. After delivery, air lines, u-bolts, j-bolts, in fact all the paraphernalia needed to move his loads, is bagged and sent back to Macungie via common carrier.

Some assembly required. Geake not only unloads, he has mechanic’s work to do, such as removing hubs and replacing axles.

In Plainville, Jerry Geake spots an old chain fall hanging from an even older metal frame and pulls under to begin the three-hour job of undecking. He drains the air from the first truck to unload and refills the system in order to use his air wrench. The wrench is used to remove hubs and replace axles that have been strapped to the frame. The axles are drained and refilled with lube and the last loaded truck is hoisted by the chain fall and a great deal of elbow grease. The saddle mounts, lumber and u-bolts are removed and put on a pallet with the air line and, one by one, the trucks take their place in the lot. No need for a wrecker this time, but Jerry Geake says not all places he delivers have chain falls. “Wreckers are more complicated,” he says. “They take more time and more room.”

Unloading is paid at the rate of $53.67 for a double saddle mount and $76.57 for a triple. Jerry Geake will make well over $300 today and in the neighborhood of $50,000 this year.

Then he bobtails to Manchester in two and half hours. The real work is done but Jerry Geake still has to drop off the lead unit and transfer his gear to a taxi, ride to the airport, pick up the rental car and run back to Macungie. It is a long day, but the ride home seems easy done in the relative comfort of a new rental car.

Jerry Geake decides to keep the rental until morning, returning it before going to the terminal for dispatch. He says he might just stay home a day. He is a council member in his town and there are some important issues on the agenda.

Jerry Geake and his peers work hard, but their hard work pays off in home time and a good paycheck. They spend much less time on the road than other over-the-road drivers. Jerry Geake says he averages about 80,000 miles a year

Marty Robbins, now terminal manager for Hook Up in Winnsboro, S.C., started as a driver. The Winnsboro operation handles all of Mack’s Class 8 road tractors, delivering all over the country.

According to Robbins, there are few differences between the two Hook Up operations. “You’ve got to like to fly,” says Robbins. “And you can’t smoke in the trucks. You can’t sleep in them. But unhooking is pretty much the same, just a little more delicate. There are CBs and antennas to worry about and you can’t drop after hours. The customer goes over every truck with a fine tooth comb. Other than that, the operations are very similar.”

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