Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Work

So, my first four years as a working, commercial pilot, actually consisted of four consecutive summers as a seasonal pilot. The outfit I worked for had lots of work in the summer, particularly during the summer fire season. Not so much work during the winter. The company was a small family-run and operated charter outfit, consisting of Mom the Operations Manager, Dad, the Chief Pilot and AME and one older son as a Pilot, another younger son as an apprentice AME. They typically take in a junior pilot to help fill the gaps during the summer seasons. 

That was me.

  Their was still flying to be done during the winter months, but not enough to keep three pilots on payroll. Dad and Son could easily handle the winter flying and I needed to find something else to fill in the other 7 months of the year. 

  I worked down south as a fuel truck driver at a major airport, so decided to try my hand at driving for a living up here. Given that the fuel hauling business up here is also very seasonal, it actually worked out pretty good. In the winter, most homes up here are heated by Diesel ( Furnace Oil ) and that fuel needs to be delivered to the tank at their home several times a winter.

  Since I hold a class 3 commercial driving license, I am qualified to drive a " straight-truck ", also referred to as a " Body-Job ". That is, a non-articulated truck. Not a tractor-trailer combination, but a vehicle where the tank or cargo container is affixed to the truck chassis itself.  You need a Class 1 license to drive a tractor-trailer, but the tractor part of the Body-Job is the same truck. Usually a little bit smaller in terms of horsepower and transmission. My license technically allows me to drive a Semi for hire, I just cant drive it hooked up to a trailer.

  In any case. At the end of my second summer flying up here, I decided to look for winter work. There are two fuel hauling companies in my little town, so I polished up my resume and stopped by to see them. The first one said thanks, we'll let you know, but we're not looking for anyone right now. Second one asked me if I had time to interview when I popped in unannounced, and I left with a job offer pending reference checks.

  I came to find out later that the unemployment rate up here is pretty much nil. The only people not working are generally those that either don't want to, or don't need to. People up here don't go looking for jobs, jobs go looking for people. I'm speaking in broad terms, but you get the idea. Its pretty hard for them to find qualified people for a lot of positions and a lot of companies just end up taking whoever is willing to do it. 

That was me.

  My driving " experience " from my airport job down south gave me a little in the way of knowledge, but really, I had a lot to learn.

  To start, all the trucks I used to drive were Automatic Transmissions. All the trucks at my new employ were Standard. 10 and 18 speed semi truck transmissions. I spent the first month shadowing one of their drivers to learn the routes and equipment, but to also get used to driving a " real " truck. My license was restricted to Auto only, so I had to take another driving test to get the restriction lifted. Everyone told me that the Department of Transport guys that administered the tests were very big on the " double-clutch " method of shifting these big trucks, I spent a month driving around trying to master the double-clutch. 

  Gegenerally big trucks don't shift with the clutch at all, you simply learn what RPM ranges and speeds you can shift up and down in, along with when to give it gas during the shift, and it shifts very easily without using the clutch. Double-clutching, not so easy. I wont even bore you with the details of how to double clutch, as it was, and still is, pretty useless information.

  Turned out that the DOT guy didn't care, or he didn't say anything anyway. Maybe he would have said something if I tried to shift without the double clutch, but the road test was pretty basic, so I kind of doubt it.

  So there you have it. I had a winter job, that paid quite well and was seasonal for the winter only, they were only too happy for me to leave in the spring and go back to flying.

  I spent two winters on the Body-Job, delivering furnace oil to home tanks, gasoline and diesel to gas stations and industrial tanks. Once a week or so had me driving on the highway to neighbouring towns to do home deliveries or other fuel deliveries. I'd help out at the airport operation, filling a plane now and then or just keeping the self-serve tanks at the airport topped up with Avgas and Jet Fuel. 

  There was a dedicated airport guy who went out and operated the pumps for itinerant aircraft, but I was the back-up since I had airport fueling experience. Sometimes this involved taking an on-call cell and coming in after hours to fill planes. Other times I'd get called out after hours to fill peoples home tanks who had let them run low or even out. Call outs like that paid a flat call out fee and it all went to the driver. It was a usually 150 bucks a shot, so it was a nice little way to make up for getting suited up at 40 below and coming in on a Sunday to do one delivery. I felt bad sometimes though as people had their furnaces stop working, so they call in for an after hours fuel delivery. Pay a hefty fee on top of the price of the fuel and then at least half the time that's when they found out it was their furnace itself that had died, not run out of fuel.

  Heating your home up here is expensive, to say the least. Our little trailer, 900 and change square feet, costs about 1200 bucks a year to heat. All of that is in the seven months of winter, so its 150-200 bucks a month depending on the temperature an average house with a basement and say, 2000 square feet of space, you could easily spend 400-500 bucks a month, just for furnace oil. Thats assuming you have decent windows and insulation too. Your neighbour, with an older house of the same size, but crappy insulation and windows, might spend 700-800 a month.

   Electricity up here is brutal too. Most places down south pay 6-10 Cents per Kilowatt hour, up here, its almost 30 Cents. We averaged 2-400 dollars a month for Electricity as well, just for our tiny little place. I can only imagine what a larger house costs to run.

  The home deliveries were a lot of work too. Once the snow was piled up, you had to make a path to the tank from wherever you could get the truck closest to the tanks. Technically, the homeowner is supposed to have a clear path, shovelled to the tank and we were supposed to not deliver if there wasnt. In reality, for the three or four times a year that we needed access to the tank, you could hardly blame them for not shovelling a 50 or 100 foot long path that gets used so little. Most of the time, you made the path yourself, tromping through the snow, dragging the hose behind you. Tanks like the one below needed a ladder to access in the summer, in the winter, most of the time the snow piled high enough that you didn't need it.

  Dragging that hose through the snow forty or fifty times a day was good exercise though.

  On top of the tank are the filler port, a vent and a gauge. The gauge is just a little plastic dome where a bobber shows the level of the fuel in the tank. Most of the time, snow falling off the roof of the home had piled up on the tank, either breaking the gauge or it ends up buried in a frozen block of ice. The rest of the time, water in the mechanism has frozen it solid anyway and it is hardly reliable. In the early winter and late winter, when the temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing, the ice-cold fuel will leave a frost line on the outside of the tank. The rest of the time, the only reliable way to know how much fuel you have is to dip it.

  The vent also has a little whistle in it that will whistle as you fill it and, theoretically, stop whistling as you approach full. I say theoretically, as I have first hand experience of occasionally finding out the tank is full by the presence of fuel spraying out the filler port as you attempt to overfill it.

  Most tanks also have some kind of insulation on the fuel lines going into the home as well. Surprisingly, the little heat conducted through the metal pipe from the parts of it inside the home to the parts outside the home can be kept fairly well if wrapped up.

  All of the fuel in our town arrived by Rail cars and is stored in giant tanks that we fill our trucks from. The fuel is cooled by the trip up here and then again sitting in the tanks. By the middle of winter, you can easily be dispensing fuel that is -30 degrees celsius. If the outside air warms up to say, -5, the tanked fuel takes weeks of that temperature before it warms up. Hence the frost lines on the outside of the tanks, similar to a cold glass of beer on a hot day.

  My favorite part of the job was the highway trips. Most of the neighbouring towns were around 100-150 kms away. 2 hour drive out, do my deliveries, grab a sandwich, two hour drive back, load the truck up for the next day and I'm done. Most of the day spent in the nice warm cab listening to satellite radio and drinking coffee.

  It wasnt all relaxing though. When the weather was bad or there was a lot of fresh snow, the highways up here leave a lot to be desired. Such as shoulders. 6 inches or so past the white line on your right was usually the ditch and the beginning of a very long and bad day if you strayed too far that way. I only managed one foray into the ditch and that was enough for me. 

  When the roads are snow covered, our little two-lane highways become " single-track ". 

Vehicles travelling in both direction drive in the middle of the road. When you come upon a car or truck coming at you, you both slow right down, to 30-40 km/h and move over into the fresh snow as you pass each other. Passing another truck doesn't leave a lot of room between your mirrors and if one of you hasnt slowed right down, the visibility in the blowing snow behind you is pretty much nil.

  In this case, I moved over for a car coming at me, but managed to move over too far and caught the edge of the ditch. I felt the back wheels go over the edge and start pulling the loaded truck over the side. Knowing that fighting it and trying to swerve hard back up onto the road surface was inviting disaster and an overturned fuel truck, I pointed it down into the ditch and rode it out into five feet of snow. 

  8 hours later, another truck had come up to meet me and we pumped my load of diesel into his truck to lighten my load and a winch truck pulled me up the embankment and back onto terra firma. He continued on to do my delivery and I turned around and headed home with my tail between my legs. I only needed to learn that lesson once.

  I was lucky that I didnt spill any product and that equipment was available to get me out the ditch. Had I been somewhere more remote, had I flopped it over, had the snow ripped some of the plumbing off.....things could have been much worse.


Occasionally, I got to do longer trips. Usually the big trucks did the big trips, but sometimes there was need for only a small amount of fuel or the location couldnt accomodatea big truck. My tank only held about 15,000 Litres. 

  In the shoulder seasons, this meant crossing rivers on reaction ferries. Ferries that went across whenever traffic was there to go across. 

In the winter, the rivers froze up and you drove across on the ice. 

Realisitically, the ice is so thick that there is little danger of going through. I was told by one old timer to take your seat belt off, roll your window down and keep the radio off so you can listen to the ice as you go across. When the Ice was covered in snow, you could hardly tell you were on a river, it just looked like any other snow-covered highway up here. When the wind had blown the ice clear of snow though and you could see down into the ice, it was a little spooky. The cracks in the ice make a white ribbon, clearly showing you exactly how thick ( or thin ) the ice was, but it also showed you black, cold water below. Not my favourite.

   I also got to do a few trips on the real " winter roads ". Some of the communities up here have no road access at all in the summer. These were usually the ones I was flying into in the summer.   In the winter, there'd be a cut line, where a Cat had basically bull-dozed a semi-level trail off the highway, through the bush and swamp, out to the community. Not navigable in the summer, unless you were on an ATV and were carrying your own fuel, but in the winter when the ground froze up hard enough, they'd do their best to level out the snow and ice and make a winter road.

 A lot of times, theyd make use of lakes along the route and the road would have you driving over the nice flat ice. Other times, they simply take snow-cats and plows and pack a snow and ice road and when it was frozen and packed enough they'd open it up to heavy trucks. The winter is the time when all the communities bulk goods and fuel is stockpiled for the rest of the year. Since these towns run on generators, it take a lot of stockpiled fuel in the winter to last them through the summer, when there is no way at all to get fuel in.

  Only problem, sometimes they use more fuel than they anticipate over the summer. Sometimes winter comes late and the summer stocks dwindle to critical levels before the road is ready to take the big trucks. So, I got a few trips where they made an exception for my " little " truck and out of neccessity, allowed me to come out on the road before it was judged ready for heavier trucks. The first time I did this, the road was definitely NOT ready. The trip was pretty tough. Later in the season, I took a load in again after the road was done and it was much, much easier.

  As part of the granting of the " exception " for my first load in, they met me at the start of the road and told me very sternly that I was, under no circumstance, to go over 25 km/h on the road. For a 150 km "road", that was three hours away from base before it even started off the side of the " highway ", that made for a long day.

  I laughed about an hour later, I was lucky to get 20 km/h, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life and being bounced against my seat belt straps the whole way in. To make it even worse, it had snowed a good 8-10 inches the night before and the only tracks I had were from my escort truck ahead of me.

  I passed about a dozen pickup trucks on their way out of the community as I went in. Wasn't a lot of room to squeeze by each other when we met either. Since I had a big truck with chains and pulling straps, I always watched them carefully in my mirrors as we squeezed by each other to make sure the little trucks didn't need me to pull them out. With one set of wheels over on the side of the road, not entirely sure if you were driving on packed " road " or about to drop a wheel over the edge and get stuck.

  Going in wasn't too bad, as I had 15,000 litres of diesel to give me weight on my wheels and good traction. Coming out, the bouncing was worse with my now-empty truck and I wished I had a little more weight to help in some of the rough spots. Between my truck and all the little trucks, plowing through the fresh snow, going out it was a churned up mess. In a lot of spots, you simply got going as fast as you could manage and didnt dare slow down.

  Later in the year I went in at night when the road was done and it was much nicer.

  When you stopped at one of the rest areas along the highway, you were usually greeted by at least a couple of Ravens who had found that most truckers are more than happy to share a little of their lunch. Some of them are pretty bold. This one sat on my hood and awaited his meal, but I've had others sit right on the mirror outside my window, inches from my head, cocking their heads and waiting for the window to come down. they'd probably eat out of your hand, but I'm not that brave, these are big birds.

  I always kept a box a dog biscuits in the truck for the home deliveries and the Ravens seemed quite happy with a couple milk bones. In some of the communities, the dogs got to know this too, and I felt like the Pied Piper driving around town with a couple dogs chasing along behind me, waiting for the next stop.

  Anyhow, that kept my winters busy and paid for the fuel in my furnace tank for the two winters we spent up there in between the summer flying.


  1. Very interesting. I've been following your postings for several years and always enjoy seeing what you are up to.

  2. Thanks, it's always nice to hear there's someone out there!