When you're driving a Pinnacle Express fuel truck down the road — that's 130,000 lbs. of tanker truck hauling 13,400 gal. of jet fuel — and there's some obstacle or accident suddenly in front of you, you've got two possibilities: stand on those brakes and stop the truck, or hit whatever it is if you can't.
"My drivers, because we haul fuel tankers, are trained not to 'avoid' the accident," says Jim Fox, the fleet's vice president and general manager. "They cannot turn the wheel to avoid, because they will roll over and it will lead to a much bigger problem.
"There's a whole lot of engine and frame rail at the front of the truck to absorb it," he continues. "I pray to God we're not at fault, of course, but I need my people home in one piece at the end of each day."
Any breakdowns are another big problem for this aviation fuel hauler, especially because of all-too-prevalent distracted driving. If one of the fleet's trucks has a problem and loses power, Pinnacle drivers are trained to get the truck out of the roadway if they can, even if it damages the vehicle. "Everybody and their mother is driving down the road doing this now," says Fox, gesturing with his thumb as if texting or using a smartphone. "I just can't have my guys there on the side of the road.
"If you can't get off the road, you can't get off the road. But my drivers are actually trained — this is right out of my training protocol — I would rather have them destroy a tire, a rim, a fender, fuel tank, fuel tank step than sit on the side of the road waiting for repair," Fox explains. "That's how critically we view sitting on the side of the road with a tanker full of aviation gasoline or jet fuel.
"With what we haul, when we get hit, we tend to leave a smoking crater in the middle of the intersection," he adds.
Rock stars and crop dusters
In the early 2000s, Pinnacle was fueling gas stations, railroads and some fleets as well as a small amount of aviation fuel customers. Business was souring with the gas stations — station owners were demanding lower and lower rates, Fox says — so Pinnacle decided to drop that business and focus on aviation fuel transport exclusively.
He says he observed at the time that the aviation industry had a cooperative approach to safety. "I liked the safety culture, and they were willing to share with me the things they did to ensure that their customers get home in one piece," he recalls.
However, when the fleet moved solely to aviation fuel in 2004, half the drivers left. Pinnacle had 10 trucks and 12 trailers then and was suddenly down to five trucks. But the company kept on and now is running 24 tractors and 33 trailers, each of which might haul 2.5 million gal. of aviation fuel every year.
Pinnacle now fulfills "a critical part of the [aviation fuel] supply chain," Fox contends, and the fleet's trucks are filled at loading terminals throughout the Midwest and in Texas. There are quality control checks on the fuel when it's loaded, before the truck leaves the terminal and when the fuel is delivered. "Ultimately, it's uploaded into a refueler and put into the wing of an aircraft," Fox explains.
So who does Pinnacle serve? Rock stars and performers with their own airplanes, actually, and others like the military, private corporate flight programs, mom-and-pop farmers dusting crops and other private pilots.
"You might have Billy Joel and Elton John sharing an aircraft," Fox says. "We supply fuel to their FBOs (fixed-base operators) that handle the [fuel] uploads." Pinnacle found it had to expand operations into Texas because hauling airplane fuel up north "dies" the first quarter each year.
"There aren't any crop dusters flying; there's no air shows. It's too cold for the mom-and-pops to be up there flying and enjoying it," Fox says. The expansion into Texas allows Pinnacle to keep hauling year-round, and the company now has nine trucks and 13 trailers based out of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Tyler. From Texas, the trucks are "going all over the place: Colorado, Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas," Fox says.
Equipment lessons learned
As Pinnacle was getting focused on aviation fuel, the fleet also for the first time had purchased new trucks, coming from "a mishmash" prior to that. The tractors were on a replacement cycle of 5-7 years and 450,000-500,000 mi.
"We kept with that new truck model," Fox notes. "I'm changing power out, because my guys can't be on the side of the road with a breakdown because we were too cheap." In one purchasing cycle, Pinnacle went with Freightliners — partly due to the OEM's maintenance diagnostics program, says Fox — wearing Bendix disc brakes, changing over from drums. Pinnacle now has disc brakes on all power units.
"We noticed an immediate difference in our maintenance cycles" with disc brakes, Fox contends. "The drivers noticed an immediate difference in the braking capability of the tractors." Pinnacle trailers, meanwhile, stay in service much longer — and with salty northern roads, the company switched to aluminum frames on tandem interstate trailers and stainless steel frames on six-axle fuel transports to avoid corrosion.
"We started paying more attention to the specifications of the equipment. How were we building these? What are we doing?" recalls Fox. Pinnacle decided to swap its dual-tire setup for super-wide-base singles, also saving weight with aluminum rims. The super singles — the fleet chose a product from Michelin — doubled tread life from just under 10,000 mi. per 1/32-in. of wear to 18,000-20,000 mi. per 1/32-in. of wear, he says, and also boosted fuel economy by 10%.
But there was a problem: with less width overall on the super-wide singles, the loaded trailers were causing axles to deflect in at 1/2-deg. of negative camber "putting excess load on the inside" and wearing the tires unevenly. SAF-Holland had frame-axle combinations available with 1/2-deg. of positive camber at the wheel end, Fox explains, and switching to those axles fixed the problem.
The new axles had disc brakes and SAF's premium INTEGRAL rotors. "We've experienced a lot of benefits from going to this axle and brake combination," Fox says, which his drivers have said has the tractor-trailer combos stopping "like a sports car." Sooner than expected, it came to that stop-or-hit directive Pinnacle drivers face.
"My senior driver was coming to Grand Rapids [MI] and was somewhere between there and Lansing. Somebody got stupid in front of him and suddenly came to a dead stop on I-96," says Fox. "We had just put the first of our six-axle disc brake trailers into revenue service.
"He had traffic on the left, and my drivers are trained not to [cut the wheel and] avoid. So he dynamited the brakes," Fox continues. "He estimates that the truck — 65 tons of truck, trailer, driver and fuel — stopped in about 235 ft.
"It made funny noises and there was stuff flying around the cab from the sleeper, but he shut it down."
Also when the fleet went to disc brakes with trailers, "the other fringe benefit we found is the trailers are almost maintenance-free now," contends Fox. "We're only worried about tire pressure and lights."
There's less maintenance, and the maintenance job itself is also easier and quicker, he emphasizes, which means less downtime in the shop. An ASE-certified mechanic himself, "when I do a brake job on a drum brake trailer, it's about an hour-and-a-half per axle. You've got to press out bushings, you've got to clean up all the rust. It's a pain," Fox says.
"With the disc brakes, it takes us longer to get the tire and wheel off than it does to change the brake pads," he notes. "I'm of the opinion that drum brakes are costing us three times as much to operate because of downtime and maintenance." According to Fox, given the fleet's hazardous cargo and braking performance needs, Pinnacle won't go back to drum brakes and is moving to all discs going forward.
"There's more uptime; it's a lighter axle," Fox notes, pointing to further lightweighting gains from the brakes. "Yeah, it's a little bit more expensive up front, but I look at it this way: These brakes last three times as long as drums. If I'm going to get an axle and brake combination and I'm only going to replace the brake pads three times in 10 years, what's an extra few thousand dollars? My maintenance costs are almost nothing," he says.
Except for 10 older trailers with drum brakes — which Fox says he's looking to replace out with discs — "we've had disc brakes on our trailers for six years now and haven't gotten into replacing rotors," he notes.
The reduced maintenance leads to better Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores on maintenance/ shop time. "I'm able to use that cudgel with my customers, because I have them compare my CSA ratings to other carriers' in the same market and I can say, 'Hey, I'm not going to put 8,000 gal. of jet fuel in a frog pond,'" Fox says.
"'And oh, by the way, that's your jet fuel — and what'll happen is for the next 10 years in that pond, every time a frog farts, a little puff of black smoke comes out.'
"That's not going to be us," he promises.