Like the lady said, I should have known better.
Only a few hours earlier, I was feeling great — climbing up Parley’s Canyon, a 7,100-foot pass on I-80 just east of Salt Lake City. My trailer carried an "essential load" of two enormous Pratt & Whitney jet aircraft engines on this winter day in 1990.
Operation Desert Storm was breaking out, and these replacement motors were being rushed to Iraq. I was proud to be helping our nation's military.
Chasing the sunset in light snow, I was hurrying to clear the canyon before the highway patrol closed the road. And I should have put on the tire chains....
I didn't know it yet, but my load was unstable. Each of the Pratt & Whitney engines on my trailer weighed 20,000 pounds and was 15 feet long. They had been double tarped at the factory, so I didn’t notice that some straps had loosened and the load was starting to shift.
Dusk fell as I reached the crest and headed downhill. There were plenty of caution signs in the darkening canyon, but my mind was elsewhere. I was an experienced driver, and thought my equipment and load were in perfect shape.
As I gathered speed, I used the Jake Brake on and off with some foot pedal. Another driver behind me began hollering on the radio. "It looks like there's a small fire on one of your trailer hubs and a tire is blown." He said that an alligator that flew off my tire almost hit him.
I was now going nearly 100 mph downhill. I knew I had to stop and extinguish the fire before more tires blew or I completely lost a brake.
I steered for a runaway truck lane. Gravel scattered as I hit the uphill grade, which helped me brake to an abrupt stop in a few hundred feet.
I heard a loud crunching noise followed by a thud. Then I felt the load shift as a strap broke.
My trailer was both belly-loaded and axle-loaded. The belly-loaded aircraft motor shifted forward and broke away from dunnage. It slammed into my cab rack. One of the U-bolts snapped, and the headache rack tipped forward into the back of my sleeper.
When the dust settled, my new Merritt Dyna Light cab rack was mangled. But it had done its job. Without the cab guard, the airplane motor would have been sitting in my lap. A chain rack and a chain tray were bent. My saddle box was also dented.
The cop tapped his pen against his ticket book, trying to make up his mind. I got lucky. Another call came in, and he roared away in his Crown Vic.
The tow-truck driver, a six-foot woman in overalls, said, "Hey, you’re Dave the Tarp Guy! Aren't you supposed to know better?" My head was sore — but my face was redder.
She towed me out and helped me reposition the load. I filed a huge insurance claim and went into town to look for a replacement U-bolt.
The cab rack probably saved my life and I never again drove without one. The insurance adjuster said the top-quality aluminum kept the high-tensile welds from breaking on impact. He also said that it helped that this headache rack was a correct fit for my cab.
It was an expensive lesson. I’m still embarrassed that my speed got out of hand. I should have known better with such heavy cargo.
Above all, remember to lift your tarps and check your load. Do this every time you kick the tires.
Veteran driver David Steinhardt aka Dave the Tarp Guy is currently president and owner of D.S. Sewing, Inc. in New Haven, CT.