Unsung heroes of heavy haulage

WHEN IT COMES to the highway theatre of super and mega hauls the heavy-duty rigs with their monstrous loads are, without doubt, the stars of their own big, slow-moving show. Power generators weighing 200 tonnes or more, giant earthmovers, railway rolling stock and wind turbines winding their way across the landscape make for huge loads guaranteed to attract anyone’s attention. But while those huge loads on massive trailers towed by multiple prime movers might be the stars, no mega-move is ever going to happen without a solid support cast of escort vehicles.

And while we rarely take notice of those extras that make up a monster-load convoy they are the guys who, quite literally, do a Moses and part the waters – or in this case clear a path through traffic, the skilled road pilots running escort duty. In Australia we are happy to bang on about the Nanny State’s endless rules but on the road, when a 300-tonne load has to get from A to B, there are times when the rules actually work in our favour – even if the states can’t always agree with each other on the exact standards that need to be met.

Warning lights and big signs draw attention.

There is no secret to the fact that an escort or pilot (the terms are interchangeable according to those in the industry) vehicle is used to escort trucks carrying large, oversized loads, running ahead of convoys and basically serving as highly visible warning devices alerting oncoming traffic that something very large, relatively slow, and potentially dangerous is approaching. Escort drivers often roam as much as one-and-a-half kilometres ahead of the lead truck, becoming something of a forward scout and ensuring that not just the road but also the roadside furniture can manage the load’s extreme weight and dimensions.

Mega-hauls require complex and concise road books to cover every possible contingency of every haul but the words ‘unforeseen circumstances’ sometimes pop up, either as things no one thought about, such as a line of steel posts 25mm taller than the lowest point of the load or roadworks that started because some local, state or federal government department didn’t get the memo and started work when the planning was finished and the road book was published. Kane Buffham, from Western Australia-based South West Pilot Services, says that without pilots or escorts there would be very few big hauls. “Yes, the police can do the job if they have to but there are probably better uses for police resources,” Kane told Big Rigs.

Anyone thinking the job of an escort or pilot is simply a matter of driving slowly ahead of a gigantic, slow-moving vehicle should have another think, according to Kane. “It’s not an easy gig being a pilot and it’s a little bit hard on the head at times because pilots not only have to think for the truck drivers, they also have to think for the general public as well, for those drivers who can’t see a monster load bearing down on them. “It’s especially tough running escort duties in built-up city areas where you have to think for yourself, for the truck drivers, for the other pilots in the convoy and for the public.

“You have to plan for everything that can come at you and be ready for it. It’s much easier out on the highway but even then, you still have to be on your toes.” Escort and pilot licence training varies between states and territories.

The New South Wales Oversize, Overmass Escort Vehicle Drivers Scheme (OSOM EVDS), for example, comprises understanding of both the Accreditation Agreement and the Operating Guidelines as well as completion of six individual competency units taught by an approved registered training organisation.

Unsung heroes of heavy haulage

What the rearmost escort driver sees all day.

In Victoria there are two licence levels. The first is simply to hold a full driver’s licence and drive a compliant vehicle while the second qualifies each successful applicant as a Certified Pilot Vehicle Driver and requires, as well as having field experience at the first level, successful completion of five training units through a registered training organisation. Queensland – along with the other states and territories – is different again although the regulations are more or less variations on a theme, says Kane Buffham, acknowledging that administrative differences between the states and territories can cause problems for pilots escorting big loads across borders.

It is, he adds with a degree of understatement, “a bit of a minefield out there”. What type of person makes the best escort or pilot vehicle driver? “Ex-truckies are probably the best because they have the experience to be able to think ahead for the prime mover drivers they are helping and can also relay accurate, reliable information back down the line,” Kane says.

“A trucking background probably won’t help when it comes to studying the rules and regulations or going through the process of a licence exam but it does help out in the real world.”

Unsung heroes of heavy haulage

Young Dusty Buffham plans on one day piloting mega-hauls.

And not all the problems befalling escort drivers are generated by the road conditions or come from within the convoy. Sometimes, says Kane, the biggest problems are generated by some of the very people the pilots are trying to help – road-using members of the public. “I’ve seen people drive up to an escort vehicle and threaten physical abuse when a bridge or access road is blocked and they want to keep driving,” Kane said. “They soon back-pedal when they see what’s coming-up behind the guy and bearing down on them though.

“I’ve seen them wheelspinning and reversing up over kerbs to get out of the way of a big load. “It can be a very dangerous place (on the road) and driving escort can be a dangerous job and you have to have a very thick skin. I don’t think there are too many pilots who travel through towns, especially, with their doors unlocked.”

So keep in mind, next time you watch in awe as a mega-haul passes by, that it probably couldn’t happen without the escorts and pilots working busily around it.

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