When Ray Cline pulled out of Ogden, Utah, bound for the Tampa (Fla.) International Airport in late June, his 12-foot-wide load weighed 100,000 pounds and was 100 feet from bumper to rear overhang. He was pulling one of the most awkward loads aviation haulers ever carry – an extendable motorized boarding bridge used to load and unload passengers from airplanes.
“They’re long, they’re top heavy and they bridge the trailer,” says Cline, an owner-operator with a 1997 Kenworth T800 and double-drop lowboy leased to Bennett Motor Express of McDonough, Ga. “The front is on the trailer’s front deck and it’s hanging over at the back of the trailer, and there’s a lot of spring in one of these. They can get awkward in a hurry.”
Awkward, it seems, is a buzzword in aviation hauling. Passenger boarding bridges aside, consider some of the loads: jet engines, wings, nose cones, radar domes, fuselages, de-icers, pushback tugs, erected scaffolding, thrust reversers, landing gear, baggage carts, freight containers.
Ask Boeing company driver Donny Jones what the most uncomfortable part of hauling a $20 million dollar jet engine, fully rigged and ready to be bolted on to a jumbo jet wing is and he’ll tell you “It’s four-wheel drivers in my blind spot trying to take pictures.”
Or talk to Airline Transportation Specialists (ATS) veteran Tom Hipp, who often has to stop and take the wheels off of tall de-icing equipment to fit it into some awkward places. Then he has to put them back on when he’s through.
Or ask Boeing’s Bob Schoenleber, who has to run through small communities and out-of-the-way roads to avoid low overpasses when he’s hauling rocket parts from Seattle to Southern California.
If loads are commonly labeled awkward, aviation industry drivers are known to be versatile, adaptable or creative because of the way they can handle them.
“Somebody who is good at this can make the most difficult job look easy,” ATS co-owner Tom Medved says. “But it isn’t. It requires top of the line drivers, the very best. We have them, but I’ll tell you, we’re looking for more, the best can be hard to find.”
Trucking companies that haul for the aviation industry know there is little room for error. Airlines won’t tolerate damage, and it’s not because of the astronomical cost of most of the material these guys haul – it’s the lack of a big inventory. “If something gets damaged, like say a jet engine, it takes a while to get another one – and that means an airplane sitting on the ground, and no airline will stand for that,” says Medved.
Dave Young, the Memphis agent for Bennett’s parent company Bennett International Group, says he is amazed at what aviation industry haulers can do. “They impress the heck out of me. And I’m a dispatcher!” he jokes.
Hipp, 51, who pilots a ’98 Peterbilt 379, is based in Minneapolis, and says hauling aviation equipment requires boundless resourcefulness and specialized knowledge from a driver because almost any of the industry’s big loads comes with its own set of problems and variables. “But,” Hipp says, “it’s up to the driver to make it work, whatever it is.”
Medved says Hipp is a classic example of someone who is “making things work.” He labels Hipp as “a driver/mechanic/engineer.” Because of loads like de-icing equipment, which constantly create delivery problems because they are tall enough to reach jumbo jet wings, Hipp keeps his toolbox well stocked and handy.
“I carry tools for the special problems I know are likely to come up, including a 20-ton hydraulic jack and a 12-ton, and pneumatic wrenches that I need for de-icers,” Hipp says. “I can take the wheels off, get under something and then put then back later. I could wait for a crane or someone from the airline to help, but it’s my way to do it myself, faster, better for everyone.”
Medved says airlines rely on a good trucking company to help keep their costs down. ATS has developed a strong working relationship with Northwest Airlines over the years, so, while Hipp has to deadhead a lot of miles out of Minneapolis, the airline helps where it can.
Recently he needed to pickup some tugs – the pushback tractors that move airplanes on the tarmac – in Toronto and haul them back to Minneapolis. Northwest found Hipp an engine that needed to go from Minneapolis to Detroit and a load of baggage carts that needed to go from Detroit to Toronto.
Most jet engines that tractor-trailer are stripped down units that are crated, unlike Boeing’s fully worked up, ready-to-go giants. Crated engines but must be chained down properly. The engine inside is bolted to a frame and protected by shock absorbers. But chains can’t touch the engine because the soft metal could be severely damaged. Drivers complain that weigh station officials are regularly puzzled by the chaining setup and delay trucks as they argue the case.
These engines come with another potential problem: they are not filled with hydraulic fluid under pressure, so one major pothole can actually damage bearings and send the engine back to the shop.
Baggage carts can be stacked up to get a lot of them on a trailer. But if you don’t have a full support staff at the other end, the driver has be creative to get them off at when delivering. Hipp must carry the proper tools and equipment to unload them himself if he has to rather than wait for heavy lifting equipment.
But tugs, at 60,000 pounds or more, can destroy a trailer. “Those big push-back tractors have rubber tires,” says Hipp. “You have to jack them up then put hardwood blocks under them. If you don’t, those wheels will bounce, and snap chains like a string of popcorn. And if the blocks are softwood, the wheels will eventually smash it and then they’ll start bouncing.”
Young also sees tugs as potential headaches. “We haul a lot of tugs,” he says. “They can weigh over 85,000 pounds, and they’re wide too. You need a double-drop trailer and eight axles, sometimes 10. Part of the problem they bring is that you also have a lot of service equipment that goes with them and we sometimes move four or five at a time. We just took a lot of them from Florida to California for shipment overseas. The support equipment trucks go faster than the trucks hauling the tugs. They have less restrictions so they can also go a more direct route. The nightmare is to get them all to the port at the same time because the shipper doesn’t want to store them even for a day.”
One of Bennett’s most intriguing hauls was some of the scaffolding that fits around a parked aircraft’s shell so work can be done on its exterior. “This isn’t the sort of scaffolding that you see set up around buildings,” says Young. “It’s prefabricated and you can’t take it all apart. We took a load from Denver to Tacoma, Wash., a few days ago. When it was loaded it was nine inches too high. The driver and the guys loading it worked on that for 18 hours to get it legal so the shipper wouldn’t have to pay extra to run it over height.”
Cline, 35, married years and a father of two young boys who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., is a third-generation trucker, who says the hardest part about hauling multi-sized aviation equipment is dealing with four-wheelers.
“I’ve learned to ‘read’ cars, to be ready for someone when they get impatient or when they drive to close to get a look,” he says. “Going through an intersection I need every inch there is and then some more, and while you’re turning you have to see every vehicle around you because some of them are just looking for an opening to race through. There are times I’m amazed at the risks they take.”
Cline, and another Bennett driver with another passenger boarding bridge rolling along behind him, faced some major potential headaches hauling these behemoths more than 2,300 miles across eight states including loading delays, countless permits pickups, routing logistics to comply with city and state regulations, weather woes (especially wind), parking and law enforcement hassles.
Cline says he doesn’t hit the road until he is comfortable with the load. “I’m the one who decides how it’s going to be put on my trailer and secured,” he says. “I’m the one who must be satisfied before I move. Sometimes you look at the load and it all fits together quickly, other times there are nagging worries that have to be worked through.”
Seattle-Everett is the seventh most crowded metropolitan driving area in America – and 777 engines attract four-wheel gawkers ‘like a magnet’ to Boeing semis.
Schoenleber says Boeing adheres to the same philosophy with its drivers. “They’ve been great at listening to drivers,” Schoenleber says. “They don’t question us if we have a problem. They back us up. It’s safety first. A haul that’s safe to one driver may not be to another. The driver makes the decision.”
Schoenleber, 57, has been driving since 1968 and has spent the last 16 years at Boeing. His main work is hauling oversize loads, like jumbo ready-to-mount jet engines, in the Seattle/Puget Sound area that is the company’s manufacturing home base.
Schoenleber also works two weeks out of 16 on long hauls to Southern California. Some runs collect consolidated general freight from various Boeing vendors at a new Seal Beach facility.
But another Southern California run is not as simple. Boeing is part of a joint program called Sea Launch, a cooperative effort between the U.S. company and Russian, Norwegian and Ukrainian agencies. Rockets are assembled in Long Beach, Calif., and carried out to the equator by ship where they are launched, the most efficient way to get a satellite into geostationary orbit above the earth.
“We haul the farings and other portions of the top of the rocket that house the satellite. We leave here 86 feet long, including the tractor, 14 feet wide, 15 feet or more high and with four inches of ground clearance,” says Schoenleber. “We spend our time skirting overpasses and bridges and running through small communities. It’s quite a drive.”
When the Boeing boys bring 147-foot wings from one their manufacturing facility to the fuselage for attachment they are running with a steer trailer. With 70-foot wings for smaller planes a stretch trailer does the work.
Jones, 44, who has been with Boeing five years, says he makes sure not to get into a routine mindset. “We are constantly changing from one heavy load to another, and each one of those has its own demands, there are no short cuts,” he says. “For example a lot of manufacturing tooling has wheels on it so that it can move around a facility or be easily moved to another. After moving an engine that is bolted down, moving a heavy machine with wheels is a totally different mindset with different safety and logistic worries.”
And when it’s engines that Jones and Schoenleber carry they face another problem – they often drive through major metropolitan areas like downtown Seattle, where the big engines that power Boeing 777s attract four-wheel gawkers who drive perilously close to the Boeing Freightliners. “These engines are like magnets,” says Schoenleber.
Delivery to the airport has its own set of problems. “A lot of 25-year-old airports never dreamed that 53-foot trailers and big tractors would have to get in and move around,” says Medved “We try not to send someone who is brand new into difficult airports.”
ATS works a great deal with Sky Chef, delivering to the airline caterer.
“Their operations are closer to the main area of the airport, so we can have some troubles getting in and out,” Medved says. “When you’re not working near the perimeters there’re a lot of buildings to negotiate, especially at the big airports like a JFK or Newark. There’s very little room to maneuver.”
Hipp says fewer access gates at airports now also cause some problems. “Sometimes you have to go in one that is not really designed for big loads and you might have to wind your way through narrow alleys and roads,” Hipp says. “And a lot of security guys don’t understand that my 70 -foot load won’t make that 90-degree turn that they’ve been told is the only way to go.”
Surprisingly, hauling to airports is still more mundane than heightened post-Sept. 11 security would suggest. Medved feels some of the security changes have actually helped companies delivering aviation material. “You can’t really go to the wrong place any more, someone will stop you,” he says. “I suppose we may get tied up in security a little longer, but sometimes we actually make up time because we don’t go to the wrong places.”
In the fall of 2001, Elizabeth City, N.C. recreated part of the Wright Brothers’ haul of plane parts to Kitty Hawk in 1903.
First Flight Haulers
Ninety-nine years ago, in Elizabeth City, N.C., teamsters began hauling for the aviation industry – before there was an aviation industry. In fact, before there were even aircraft. And before there were trucks.
Before Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, engine-powered flight on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C. they shipped parts of their experimental aircraft to the windy Carolina coast from their hometown in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur went first, by train to Old Point Comfort, Va. The next day he took a steamer across the Hampton Roads to Norfolk. The disassembled parts of the world’s first, and as yet unflown, airplane were stowed as baggage, and Wilbur had paid $2.50 to get them from Dayton to Norfolk.
Next day, in Norfolk, Wilbur wrote that he spent the morning “trying to find some spruce for spars of machine, but was unsuccessful. Finally I bought some white pine and had it sawed up at J.E. Ethridge Co. mill.”
That afternoon he took a train to Elizabeth City, N.C. and “I engaged passage with Israel Perry on his flat-bottomed schooner fishing boat” to Kitty Hawk.
“Teamsters would have been part of the haul,” says Dr Tom Crouch, Curator of the Aeronautics division of the National Air and Space Museum and a leading Wright Bothers scholar. “He would have needed them and their wagons to haul the lumber he bought for the main body of the aircraft in Norfolk. He had to get it to the train and then again in Elizabeth City to transfer it from the station to Perry’s schooner.”