Monday, January 5, 2015
How To Not Go Down A Hill
How To Not Go Down A Hill..or..Murphy's Law At Work
Sometimes you can kill more than one bird with a stone. It requires taking a hard look at the problem and believe me I have had many years to look at it. I learned to drive a truck OJT in 1967 in Vietnam. That education went on till I retired in 2004. Over the years I had some, let's say, interesting experiences. Shippers who were paying for the use of the truck always tried to get their money's worth. One time I hauled a load of lumber from Louisville, Kentucky to Phoenix, Arizona. Unfornately I went to load with a half full tank of fuel. The shipper loaded me to my maximum legal limit. Which at that time was 80,000 pounds. This created a problem as if I filled my tanks with fuel I would be almost 800 pounds over weight which would get me fined if I pulled on a state scale. It was a hassel stopping for fuel several times, but it all went okay until Flagstaff, Arizona. Then the fun really started.
A few miles south of Flagstaff on I-17 near Sedona is a long steep grade. Shortly before the top of the grade there are signs that warn of a very long grade ahead. It also advises all drivers to pull into the rest area before the grade and adjust your brakes. This is good advice. However if it was marked like Emigrant Pass in Oregon it might be a lot safer. On Emigrant a sign tells you what gear to go down the hill in based on your gross weight. This being my first time driving down a long mountain grade, at least first in a civilian truck, and having been trained OJT, the lack of formal training would become an issue. Being a good little trucker I pulled into the rest area and adjusted my brakes. Well a couple of them anyhow. I mean how steep and long can a hill be.
After taking what I considered an adequate break I got back up into my Cabover Cornbinder. (trucker slang for an International brand of truck, oh yeah a cabover is one where you sit above the engine and there is no hood.) and pulled out of the rest area and started off the top of the grade. As soon as I went over the top it occurred to me that adjusting all the brakes might have been a better way to go. The start of the grade is very steep. All of a sudden a pickup pulling a camper went to the right shoulder then back across to the left shoulder. I could tell he was out of control. Suddenly he cut back right to quick and his trailer went over on its side and pulled the pickup over with it. Being only a couple hundred yards behind I was standing on my brakes. While I was slowing down it did not seem enough. The camper finally slid to a stop across both lanes of traffic. My truck stopped about ten feet from the wreck. First thing I did was yell on the CB for somebody to stop the southbound traffic and why. Then I helped the elderly couple crawl out of their truck. They were shaken but okay. I went back to my truck and moved it a couple hundred yards down hill to a small dip where their was a little rise. As I walked by my trailer I could smell that my brakes were hot. It was twenty to thirty minutes before the state police showed up. I had been directing the traffic that had come down the hill. There was barely room to squeeze past the wreck on the shoulder. Once the wrecker showed up, about an hour later, the state trooper told me to leave and that they would take care of the problem.
After saying goodbye to the couple I walked back down the hill to my truck. Again I could smell the brakes. I started easing down the hill and in second gear my truck could hold itself back with the engine compression. Feeling a little more confident I pulled out into traffic and started shifting gears. Rule one is keep a steady pressure on the brakes. However not knowing this I kept speeding up and then using the brake pedal to slow down. It seemed to be working except I kept having to push the brakes a little harder to slow down. Just as I was feeling pretty confidant about it all. A voice came over the CB, "How about that southbound load of lumber. Do you have your ears on?" "Yes" I replied and he kind of burst my bubble. He said, " You might want to check your rear view mirrors. You have a problem. As much as you are smoking you are not going to make it to the bottom of this hill." I looked in the rear view mirrors and sure enough I was smoking pretty good. "Thanks," I said.'"This is my first time going down a hill like this. What do I do?" He replied, "I would stop if you can. If you can't I would start praying."
Suddenly I realized this might not be a good day. I tried to stop but couldn't but slowed, almost, to a stop. I tried to down shift to a lower gear but kept missing it. My speed was picking back up as I was out of gear and free wheeling. Finally I got it in about seventh gear. As I pressed on the brakes the pedal started melting into the floor. Even with the pedal all the way down I was picking up speed. This was suddenly not fun. I looked in the rear view mirror and so much smoke was rolling out behind me I looked like one those World War II bombers you see in the war footage going down in flames. Not sure what to do I remembered the Emergency Brake knobs on the dash. In desperation I pulled them. Nothing really happened except the amount of smoke increased dramatically and my speed was steadily climbing.
The chatter on the CB was not comforting. They were taking bets on how far down the hill I would get before I lost it. Suddenly a voice from heaven started talking on my CB. It was a trucker right behind me and he knew the hill very well and asked me how I felt about it all. His voice was very soothing. He asked me how my brake pedal was feeling and what I had done so far. He told me to push the emergency knobs back in as all they would do is get all the brakes hot. He said so far most of the smoke was coming from the trailer. He asked what gear I was in and I told him. He said regardless of what happened leave it in gear. He said the worst that could happen was I would blow up the engine. The speedometer slowly climbed and the engine was over revving quite a bit, but I seemed to steady out a little.
He advised me to let off the brakes entirely as we were getting into a stretch that was not as steep. The truck started to slow a little. That was a relief. He started explainng what we were going to try to do. Now I believe a big part of the talking was to keep my mind settled down. The shallow grade ended and we started off and another steeper grade. My engine had gotten back into its RPM range which made things feel a little better. He told me there was an escape ramp another little bit down the hill and that I should use it. Finally the escape ramp came into view, but their was a problem.
Some older couple was out walking their dog. However their car and camper trailer were parked directly in the path I needed to take. I debated going through the trailer and at the last second decided somebody might be in it. Cursing the elderly as I passed, my speed started to build again and the engine was almost off the tachometer. I kept waiting for it to explode. The steering wheel started vibrating from the engine shaking so hard. We made it to another area where it leveled out a little.
He told me there was a rest area ahead and the road went through a little upgrade stretch and maybe I could get it stopped in the rest area. As the grade leveled out my engine slowed down quite a bit. He talked me through how I should rev the engine to downshift to a lower gear which would help me slow down even more. It worked and I kept at it as quick as I could. While I was going much slower I realized I could not go into the rest area because if someone pulled out in front of me I would not be able to stop. Finally I got down to second gear. All that was left was granny and I knew I could not hit it. Slowly I pulled to the shoulder in front of the rest area. As I looked to the right I saw many people watching and waving. My situation was going down the hill, no pun intended, by radio even faster than me evidently. My truck slowed, and slowed and just before I hit the crest where the hill would start down again I stood on the brakes. However stopping was evidently not meant to be. At about 5 miles per hour my truck crossed the crest and the hill started down again.
Slowly I started building speed. My guardian angel started talking me down the hill again. I discussed that this was not exactly a ship and I thought maybe it was time to jump and let the ship go down by it self. He told me we only had a few more miles to go and if I could make the next corner ahead we would make it to the bottom. We made the corner and out in front of me was a couple of miles of straight but down hill grade. Looking harder I could see that once you hit bottom it started back up grade. Slowly my speed started building. My angel talked me through using the gears as much as possible. Finally he told me to put it in high gear and to hold on. The speedometer passed 75 and then 80 which is as far as it went. I was gaining on the cars in front of me with no way to slow down. Suddenly I saw my path. I pulled over on the right shoulder and down the hill I went.
The RPM guage was way past the end mark and the truck was vibrating like and excercise machine. I figured my speed had to be just over a 100 miles per hour. Finally I was down and crossed the bottom of the hill and started up the next one. My guardian angel told me not to stop under any circumstances. If I did, he informed me, the brakes would catch fire. It was several miles of upgrade and I rode as far as I could before I stopped.
When I did my guardian angel pulled over and told me how the road was the rest of the ways to Phoenix. While the truck cooled off I took a much needed break and when the truck was cool enough I adjusted the brakes. However there were problems as a couple wheels were covered with oil on the inside. My angel informed me that the heat had gotten so hot the wheel seals had melted. He gave me some oil and showed me how to add some which I had to do a few times before Phoenix. The next morning I unloaded the lumber and took my truck to a shop to get checked out. They had to replace several seals and all the brake pads. The repair bill was well over $2000 dollars. To me the only thing that mattered was that I was alive to tell about it.
It was several years before I ever went west again. When I did I sat down with several experienced drivers and absorbed all the knowledge they could bestow on me. This was a life changing experience, but being honest I had a worse one in Viet Nam and a couple not quite so bad ones after, but I did finally get it figured out. The old saying is. "You can go down a hill too slow a thousand times, you can go down too fast once." It is the truth. Slowing down solved my problems.