What it takes: Contractors Cargo hauls B-1 bomber body

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Contractors Cargo Drums“We transport all kinds of things, from construction equipment, petro-chemical equipment – even wind turbines,” says 84-year-old Jerry Wheeler, owner of the Compton, Calif.-based Contractors Cargo heavy-haul fleet. “And then we do the not-so-ordinary. We’ve hauled the Space Shuttle, and we just moved a B-1 Bomber from Arizona to Portland. It’s loads like that that keep things interesting and keep me young and waiting for the next big project.”

Wheeler has no intention of slowing down with a company he purchased in 1962. “Back then, trucking was different and you were buying operating authority,” he says.  “I bought Contractors Cargo for $105,000 — paying for a piece of paper and two pole dollies. But it was the operating authority that I wanted. It allowed me to truck in seven Western states.”

Wheeler began his trucking career in 1954 in Los Angeles at the age of 27 and behind the wheel of a Kenworth conventional. The Los Angeles market was teed up with construction business, he says. While he was doing fine with Wheeler Transportation for area loads, Contractors Cargo was his “in” to haul interstate.

Today the company runs 30 Kenworth T800s (2011 was the model’s 25th anniversary) and more than 300 trailers and dollies. He even owns seven rail cars – the biggest has 20 axles and can transport 1.1 million pounds.

“There’s really not much that we can’t haul,” Wheeler says.  “And, we’ve been around so long that we developed relationships with all the airplane builders – many who ended up leaving the area. We’ve hauled DC-10 fuselages, B-29s, an SR-71 Blackbird. We even disassembled the Spruce Goose and crated it for shipment by barge for the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville,” Oregon.

Contractors Cargo B1His company’s recent haul of the body of a Boeing B-1 Bomber (pictured) put Contractors Cargo in the news — “Only 100 B-1 bombers were built and this one is on its way to post-retirement testing by Boeing,” wrote the folks at Oregon DOT, where a story of the haul was posted in November. The B-1 came from the “‘Boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, where its engines and vital parts had been cannibalized in order to maintain the B-1 fleet that’s still flying.”

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Leaving on Oct. 25, the B-1’s T800/Cummins-powered convoy completed the first leg of its journey on Nov. 11 at the Portland International Airport in Oregon. This year, Wheeler’s drivers will transport the decommissioned B-1 to Boeing’s facility in Renton, Wash., where the plane will undergo testing.

“During the first segment of the move, we had to hire extra security, since so many people wanted to come up to our rig and see the B-1 Bomber up close,” says Wheeler.  “And the local news media along the way all wanted to cover the move.” For instance, find more coverage here from a Portland television station.

Measuring nearly 164 feet in length, nearly 30 feet wide, and 15 feet, 6 inches tall, the tractor and 11-axle trailer’s travel took place at night. “Weight wasn’t much of an issue – we were hauling around 74,000 pounds,” says Wheeler. “The length and height was. We had a steerable dolly in the back of the trailer to maneuver around corners, and oftentimes we had only a couple inches to spare when going under overpasses and bridges.”

Preparing for the big move, Wheeler sent out teams to run the route, twice, hand-measuring all bridges and overpasses. “Once you’re there with your cargo, you can’t really go backward,” of course, says Wheeler. “We can adjust the air ride on our trailers a couple inches, but that’s about it.”

The convoy averaged around 150 miles a night, the best leg being 200 miles over an 8-hour middle-of-the-night haul.

“Our speed was closely monitored by Boeing,” says Wheeler. “They had an engineer in the cab who kept tabs on the harmonics on the B-1. An accelerometer on the plane let the engineer know if we needed to slow up, or if we could move along a little faster.”

What’s next for Contactors Cargo, the Wheeler family business (Jerry has passed the torch of the presidency onto his son, Gerald)?  They just put in a bid “to move the Space Shuttle Endeavour.  We moved all five of the Space Shuttles 19 times; we hope we can move the Endeavour as well. There’s nothing like seeing the nose of the Space Shuttle in your rear-view mirror.”

Tip of the hat to Kenworth Trucks for this story.

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