The Big Time

By on May 1, 2009
RoadKing Mag

Just because she isn’t the trucker pulling a quarter million pounds of steel down the Interstate doesn’t mean pilot car driver Lisa Muehrcke is simply out for a carefree cruise. Nope, Lisa’s got her mind on a hundred different transportation challenges as she guides her 2005 Dodge Caravan down the highway out in front of her father Bob Muehrcke’s heavily laden rig.

As his beefed-up Freightliner winds out with a 13-axle, three-section trailer in tow, Lisa is thinking through a menu of route-running obstacles that range from low overpasses to rickety bridges, from careless drivers to a laundry list of state hauling permit regulations. Her eyes are always on the move, checking out the next ramp or curve ahead and glancing back to check her line of sight to Bob’s tractor. She’s in constant radio contact with Bob and the other pilot car bringing up the rear of the heavy-load caravan, and she’s got to watch and listen to make sure her high pole doesn’t scrape the underbelly of the next bridge overpass.

At any moment, Lisa, of Greenleaf, Wis., might have to turn on her warning lights to close off a major highway, then jump out and risk her life using flags to control traffic while Bob makes a tricky maneuver with his tractor-trailer.

While the caravan can move close to the posted highway speeds at times, it’s usually moving much slower — especially over hills and mountain passes — and a few hundred miles is often a full day of driving. Any single error during a trip could result in damaging a million-dollar load or a piece of highway infrastructure, lead to a crash of epic proportions or prompt a big fine for the truck driver in charge. And unexpected delays could topple the house of cards that is built with expensive permits that require exact scheduling and coordination for on-time delivery.

BIG BUSINESS

Bob Muehrcke, an independent trucker on lease to Anderson Trucking Service in St. Cloud, Minn., typically runs a 13-axle trailer rig combining three-axle jeep, booster and trailer. The trailer unit usually runs up to 138 feet and 107,000 pounds empty, and it runs with a fixed or steerable rear end. The longest load he and his daughter carried over the years was 160 feet. They have hauled windmill equipment, generators, crane parts and vessels for oil fields among their loads.

Those kind of behemoth loads will soon be a more common sight on the nation’s highways as more windmill farms and other big construction projects get underway. This area of trucking figures to become a bigger and more lucrative specialty, according to Doug Ball, vice president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association.

“There’s going to be a demand for it because it touches on every bit of our way of life. From energy to manufacturing to mining, you have to have the equipment there,” Ball says of what he describes as a bright future for oversize load haulers. “As the economy recovers, specialized transportation will be there.”

Ball believes that truckers who drive $500,000 tractors and run loads of 200,000 to 400,000 pounds will be valued as the U.S. infrastructure gets more attention. He considers them a special breed of drivers who are especially safety conscious and dedicated to learning new techniques. “You don’t start out as a neophyte,” he says. “These drivers are dedicated and professional and have a real can-do attitude. When confronted with these kinds of challenges, some would throw up their hands and say, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ while others will say, ‘Let me at it.’”

There is no formal training program for either pilot car drivers or the truckers who develop an oversize specialty. As it stands, a mishmosh of rules from state to state control every aspect of moving these loads. As Lisa Muehrcke explains, some states require police escorts for big loads, while others don’t. Some want the loads moved on weekdays, some on weekends. Some states require moving the loads during daylight hours, some at night. It all makes for confusing route planning and the potential for mistakes.

BIGGER OBSTACLES

Sensing that even professional truckers, the most seasoned drivers on the road, lack knowledge about the challenges faced by these monster loads, Lisa is interested in raising public awareness about hauling oversize loads and the key role played by pilot car drivers.

She recalls one trucker who spewed expletives at her over the CB radio recently when he got slowed down after pulling in ahead of the hauler and behind her pilot car.

The driver had pulled around the slow-moving truck, but didn’t look for the pilot cars that invariably travel in front of and behind the load. In the pilot car, it’s Lisa’s job to stay far enough ahead of the load to be able to signal any dangers ahead, but still maintain a line of sight to the tractor-trailer behind her.

“A regular truck may take the length of a football field to stop, while it takes my dad a minimum of three football fields to stop,” Lisa says. “I know everybody’s in a hurry, whether it’s because the weekend’s coming up and they’re trying to get home or the dispatcher is pushing them. But please, give us a little more room.”

Houston-based oversize load driver Darrel McKowan, who like Bob Muehrcke leases to Anderson Trucking Service and generally runs a 13-axle rig, knows how important pilot car drivers are. “Your escorts are your eyes. They have to tell you what your trailer and load are doing,” he says. “You have to have someone you can trust.”

Over the course of 20 years, McKowan came to prefer hauling oversize loads and takes pride in being able to meet the challenge of moving ever-bigger loads, usually related to wind energy products. He’s most proud of his skills when customers specifically ask for him to move their loads.

McKowan believes oversize loads provide the most lucrative area in trucking, but the reward for hauling the giant loads isn’t without risks. Because he still makes payments on a tractor and trailer rig worth $500,000, he gets uncomfortable letting it sit without work for long. And the risk of costly fines for even the most minor permit infraction is waiting around every corner. He once had to fight to get an unwarranted $49,750 fine dropped, which he says was a nerve-wracking experience.

Lisa Muehrcke and McKowan both say they hope other truckers on the road will keep a lookout for supersized rigs.

“Learn and be aware of your surroundings, and be courteous,’’ he says. “Everybody is out here to make a living and get home. Everybody wants the same thing.”

Driving the Pilot Car

“Sometimes there’s a satisfaction at the end of the day. Sometimes it gets very stressful and you need time to de-stress,” Lisa Muehrcke says. “Some of the other pilot cars I’ve seen, the drivers think it’s easy, that they’re just going to follow this truck and not do anything. But sometimes there’s more to it than just riding along.”

A longtime trucker with a million mile safe driving honor from Schneider Specialized Carriers Inc., Lisa knows heavy loads from the driver’s and pilot’s seats. She teamed with her
dad, Bob, for several years as a driver, then bought a tractor and ran oversize loads on her own for several more years.  In 1998, Lisa was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and left the road for a while. When she came back, it was as a pilot driver for her dad under the company name LMM Pilot Car.

Though there are no set requirements to drive a pilot car, a few states are starting to offer certification programs for pilot car drivers. Doug Ball, vice president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, says a more uniform approach to state regulations regarding the big loads could make performing these jobs easier.

“Pilot car drivers are an important ingredient in the safe movement of over-dimensional loads,” Ball says. “If you have professionalism in the pilot cars, that should equate to increased safety.”

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