Cover Story: Flying high

In 1973, 14-year-old Steve Brosnan climbed inside a 1968 Freightliner cabover and was mesmerized.He had run away from home in Longview, Wash., to escape a father who, in alcoholic rages, often beat him until he bled. Brosnan ended up at Burns Brothers Truck Stop in Wilsonville, Ore., with 25 cents and a sleeping bag. His family upheaval dimmed the first time he persuaded Larry Gubocki to let him see inside his cabover and hear the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel roar. “I sat on the dog house and said, ‘This is it,’ ” recalls Brosnan, 51. “I’m going to do this.”

The teen-ager who joined the work force by polishing truck wheels went on to net more than $80,000 last year hauling oversized loads. The runaway who once slept under bridges recently bought a five-acre homestead in Middleton, Idaho, that he enjoys with his family. The one-time high school dropout last year provided book reviews to National Public Radio.

Along the way, Brosnan enriched his life and that of others with his enthusiasm for trucking. He’s also enriched his life by pursuing hobbies, including racing and flying.
“I like myself and who I’ve become,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have lived if I hadn’t run away all those years ago.”

Brosnan’s arrival at the Wilsonville Burns Brothers became a turning point. He boarded in a camper owned by a local trucker and went on to graduate from Parkrose High School in nearby Portland. Before and after school every day, he polished wheels and serviced trucks at Burns Brothers, where he also tore engines apart.

“I was hot-wiring cars even before then,” he says, recalling his use of a family car, at age 13, to drive to the grocery to provide food for him and his sister in their parents’ absence. “I have to know how something works.”

He also listened to the advice of trucking mentors like Lonnie Bryant, now deceased.
“He used to tell me, ‘You’ve got to know the parts of the girl you’re playing,'” Brosnan says, chuckling at the old-school truck talk. “I think the older guys saw a deep, sincere passion for trucks and what I call a God-given talent to drive.”

After graduation, he got to prove that talent. In 1977, he hauled hay for Gubocki in the same truck he fell in love with at 14. Brosnan coped with the challenge of shifting the Freightliner’s 5- and 4-speed twin sticks on his first long haul to Brownsville, Texas and later on descents such as California’s infamous Grapevine.

In 1979, he bought a 1978 Kenworth cabover and leased to West Coast Truck Lines. Soon he learned to maintain the truck, track expenses and save money. “It only took me one winter to figure out it wasn’t much fun fighting slow freight and snow storms to make a truck payment,” he says.

He encountered difficulty of another kind when he was involved in a non-chargeable fatality one rainy morning in 1982. As Brosnan veered away from a sliding car, a man whose van was parked on the shoulder ran in front of Brosnan’s truck before he could stop. Shortly after, he sold the truck and worked at Costco for three years during what he describes as a dark period.

His turmoil began to end one snowy night. Brosnan and a buddy, leaving a bar near Mount Hood, Ore., offered to help a petite blonde in designer tennis shoes having difficulty with her car. Brosnan drove Jan Sabol to her parents’ home in Portland. He failed to get her phone number, but Jan found his.

“She’s the silver lining,” Brosnan says. “She’s the one who saved me.”
Before the couple eloped in 1986, friends and family members feared a marriage would fail. Jan grew up in affluence, whereas Brosnan had few resources and an unstable family life, but the couple flourished.

In 1987, the same year he returned to trucking, Brosnan won Reliable Transportation Services’ Flatbed Driver of the Year award. Two years later, he won the same award hauling regionally for Western Boxed Meats. Jan rode with him and even got her CDL, though she never drove commercially.

“I fell in love with trucks watching him drive,” Jan, 49, says of hauls from Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles. She has had an 18-year career in trucking sales, the last three with Yellow Transportation.

He and Jan bought a 1987 Peterbilt 379 in 1995, shortly before their daughter Nicole was born. Brosnan drove for Trinity Transport from 1992 until he began pulling lowboys for Piper Transportation in 2003. He started hauling oversized loads for Anderson Trucking Services, based in St. Cloud, Minn., in 2006.

“Steve is a driver that everybody wants to have 100 of,” says ATS Specialized Operations Supervisor Angela Wainwright. “He’s very receptive to new ideas and is always learning. And he’ll stop and lend a hand to the new guy.”

Brosnan’s cheerfulness impressed former customer Nick Zenovitch, vice president of Tri-City Meats in Meridian, Idaho. In 1989, Brosnan delivered up to 40,000 pounds of frozen meat from Portland to Tri-City Meats twice weekly. He drove at night over the mountains, often in heavy snow, to a packing plant that had no loading dock. Before 6:30 a.m., Brosnan helped unload the truck by hand.

“As an employer, you can always tell who’s going to move up the ladder,” says Zenovitch. “I’d have to put him in the top three drivers I’ve ever worked with. As much as anything, it was his great smile. He never complained.”

As his career progressed, Brosnan says, Jan encouraged him to seek other outlets. Partly due to his fascination with things mechanical, he pursued stock car racing and flying small aircraft. The combination of work and hobbies helped him relax, he says: “We need excitement. We need things to do.”

Brosnan’s fun-loving manner belies his on-the-job concentration. Precision and safety are essential to success, whether racing on a dirt track, flying a plane or steering his 2005 Volvo, he says, and he’s always had “to know how something works, whether it’s in business or something mechanical.” He received safety awards from three carriers and has been accident-free for 25 years.

In three years at ATS, his patience and attention to detail have helped him progress from delivering oversized freight to military vehicles, aircraft parts and 180,000-lb. windmill blades.

For last summer’s blade project, the hauls were made at night. Front and rear escorts, and as many as six highway patrolmen, escorted the loads, which move as slowly as 5 mph.
Bob Greenhood, Brosnan’s rear escort, appreciated his acumen.
“He’d re-chain a load or hang extra lights,” Greenhood says. “He’d sit through an extra light. He doesn’t push and rush.”

Brosnan spent 159 hours taking flight lessons in 1997, displaying the same patience and knack for machinery, says instructor Rebecca Bailey of Gorge Winds Aviation in Troutsdale, Ore. “He already had a solid understanding of carburetors,” she says. “He had a good start on the aircraft systems and picked up rapidly.”

Working with different kinds of equipment has made Brosnan even more aware of hazards in oversized loads. “There is zero tolerance for error,” he warns. After loading and flagging the tractor and trailer, he walks around and touches every tie, chain, binder, flag and strobe light.

Brosnan checks his route through each city for curfews and bypasses for oversized loads. Then he calculates the remaining daylight to know where to stop for the night, also planning two alternate stopping points.

For years he has monitored revenue and fuel costs with Drivers Daily Log software, though he also uses Denver-based financial services firm ATBS. His mileage dropped with the increased oversized hauling, but that didn’t hurt his bottom line. He is paid on percentage of revenue, effectively ranging from $7 per mile to $28 per mile. His net income has increased every year since 2005, when he earned $54,000, to more than $80,000 in 2008.
To get good rates, Brosnan says part of his strategy has been to haul during the winter in northern states or to take other unwanted loads.

“I knew where I wanted my career to go,” he says. “I just had to map out a way to get there. There’s no school that teaches you how to do it. I started hauling oversize and worked my way up.”

His career has begun to reap rewards for him and his family. In January, he and Jan were shopping for a second horse for their farm, where Nicole, 12, practices barrel racing with her 4-year-old mixed paint and quarter-horse, Toby. Their son, Michael, 10, rides a four-wheeler and enjoys fishing with his father. Last summer, Jan took a hiatus from a lucrative job at Yellow to spend more time with her children at the small ranch she describes as “a fairyland.”

Jan says she talks by phone to Brosnan 10 times daily. The two recently began volunteering at the Make a Wish Foundation, which serves children with life-threatening illness. “I’m the organizer and I make him do the work, so he has that sense of connection,” Jan says. “Steve is kind of a loner, but we work as a team: He’s the adventurer, and I’m happy on the sidelines.”

Other charities he’s helped include Big Brother Big Sister and, recently, as Trucker Buddy in Misty Young’s special education class at Post Falls High School in Post Falls, Idaho. “Volunteering with the kids makes me feel good, too,” Brosnan says. “To give a kid a chance early, like I could have had but didn’t.”

One way Brosnan relaxes while away from home is to find airports where he can rent a single-engine plane. The experience of piloting at 1,100 feet over Colorado mountains or Florida’s coastline provides a great change from the road. “Everything else goes away,” says Brosnan, whose handle is Flyboy. “I love going as high as I can on a clear day for the view.”

Reading is another favorite pastime. He has reviewed crime mysteries for National Public Radio’s “Roadside Review” series, but enjoys adventure stories the most, he says. His interest has evolved from childhood favorites such as Gulliver’s Travels to adventures by Clive Cussler or magazines about flying.

The story of man’s skills pitted against the unknown, however it is told, appeals to him. The same as in trucking: He is considering a one-year job recovering commercial and military equipment in Iraq.

“It does sound right up my alley,” Brosnan says. “Challenging.”

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