Thursday. I sat in class that morning, eyelids heavy as a result from the first intense three days of class, studying and reading into the evenings, and Wednesday’s 11-hour day. The lecture was about shifting a 9- or 10-speed tractor. I needed to be alert because later that day we’d be putting this information to use. Day four and we’d be in the driver’s seat, chugging around the school’s driving course in a giant vehicle built to haul more than 40,000 pounds. Power. Responsibility. Safety. I couldn’t help but to keep thinking to myself, “Don’t break anything. Don’t crash into anything.” I was nervous, but those nerves were translating to excitement. I couldn’t wait.
I imagine not everyone knows what I mean when I refer to the “tractor.” I didn’t a few years ago, either. I just thought they were called semis and that’s it. So we’re not out there driving around a green John Deere, although that would be kind of fun, too. In this industry, the tractor is the truck part of a typical semi you see driving down the highway. As a whole, they’re referred to as tractor-trailers. So the part you drive is the tractor, and the tractor hauls the trailer.
So my first week is over, and I’ve learned a lot of stuff from very basic concepts and terms, to the anatomy of a tractor-trailer, to how many feet emergency triangles need to be placed from each other, where they need to be placed depending on traffic flow, and how crucial it is to place them withing 10 minutes of pulling over. You ever see the double-tire skids down the freeway and wonder why a huge semi would have to slam on the breaks so hard? I always did. Those happen when something goes wrong with the air brakes. If an air hose is severed or pops off while a driver is cruising down the road, the trailer’s emergency brakes are activated and the wheels lock up and leave behind some serious rubber while the driver has to keep in control and get off the road. While I’ve never seen it happen to a semi on the road, I’ve seen the skid marks, and I hope it never happens to me once I’m out there! It sounds pretty scary. These are just a few examples of things that are swimming around in my head. These and about a million other things.
We started learning about hours of service. There are rules about how many hours truckers can drive before they need to take a break. Withing a 14-hour period, you can only drive 11 hours. Then you need to take a 10-hour break. You can only work 70 hours in an 8-day period, and then you need to take a 34-hour break. We also learned the basics of filling out our log books. Once we’re working, we’ll be filling out a log for every single day, even the days we don’t work, and we have to keep them updated each time our status changes. There are a lot of rules and regulations we must learn, know and apply so we can be as safe as possible. It’s sinking in how much responsibility is held in a career like this. I thought back to my years in the office. If you do something wrong in an office job, you might get called into a private conference with your boss. That’s no fun at all. If you do something wrong in the trucking industry, there could be a fatality. There is just simply no room for mistakes, but we are being taught to take the precautions needed to avoid any accident that can possibly be avoided.
On Wednesday, our long day, we had lecture for the first half, then we were brought into the safety bay (basically a gigantic garage), where two tractor-trailers were pulled into. One had the trailer hooked up, and one didn’t. This was the first time we actually walked around the whole vehicle and got to look under the hood, squat and crawl underneath the trailer, look in between the tires, and visualize how everything works together. We were learning how to undergo a pre-trip inspection. There’s a list we were given with more than 130 inspection points that we will eventually need to memorize and look over as naturally as a reflex. It’s the first part of our CDL skills test, in fact. We need to point out every single thing, what we’re checking for and why. There’s the easy ones, like washer fluid, oil level, coolant level and any obvious damage to the body of the vehicle. There’s all kinds of new terms I’m learning like hub oil, glad hands, king pin, pitman arm, locking jaws… then there’s all the different belts, hoses, the tires, lug nuts, frame, splash guards, blinkers… Whew! Trust me when I say that it covers pretty much every single inch of both the tractor and the trailer. We are told that once we get the hang of this we will find our own routine to sort of “paint” over the truck and hit every single point on this inspection list. It all comes down to driving safely on the road.
Then came Thursday. Driving day. Ohmygosh, how exciting! In the morning we sat in lecture and went over a few different transmission types, focusing on the 9- and 10-speed, which is what we’d be driving later that day. We were separated into teams of two, and I was paired up with Steve, and I think we’re going to be a good team. We were assigned our truck and were the only team in a 9-speed, but that’s okay. We’ll get a chance to drive a few different trucks throughout the course.
We head outside to the trucks. We first walked around and did a few simple inspections, making sure the fluids were all okay and went through the important LAB (Leaks, Air warning device, and Buttons) test inside the truck. This is a routine we go through to check our breaks and make sure there are no air leaks that need to be addressed before driving. Everything looked good. I first went out with my trainer. She drove about 3/4 of the way around the range, demonstrating the double clutch and how to upshift and downshift. Then it was my turn. We stopped and switched seats. I hopped into the bouncy seat and positioned myself so I could reach the pedals, and then I placed my hands on the gigantic steering wheel to get a feel for it. The first thing I learned that I thought was totally cool, was I didn’t have to give it any fuel to get it going. I started in the lowest gear, clutch and brake in. I slowly let off the clutch, and when I felt and heard the truck’s engine wanting to go, I let off the break, and I was rolling! Holy crap, I was driving the truck! I turned onto the range and upshifted a few times. Some of them slid right in, and others weren’t quite as easy. I’ve driven a manual transmission before, so there were a few habits I had to break to drive this big guy. I had to double-clutch between shifts. Clutch to go out of gear, and clutch to go into a new gear – and not pressing the clutch to the floor. You only do that at a stop. Downshifting was a little trickier because there’s an extra step where you pump the accelerator between gears to bring the rpms back up to the spot where you can shift. There’s a rhythm to all of these movements, and you have to match speed and rpms… it was a process that I was trying to remember and talk myself through, but that sometimes took too long and I’d lose that “match,” have to stop and start over. I did complete a couple of smooth downshifts, and that felt awesome! My instructor told me to pull out and park so that Steve could get in and drive around, but before I got out of the truck, she took my purple sheet and signed me off on my first drive! Steve and I both passed, so this means that just he and I can drive the tractor around the range (without the instructor) to practice. I can’t wait to drive some more! We are told that we WILL get this down, and before we know it, we’ll be upshifting and downshifting like pros. That’s going to feel pretty good.
We didn’t drive on Friday, but we’ll be back in a truck on Monday. Next week we’ll also start learning about coupling and uncoupling, which means hooking and unhooking a trailer to the tractor. Then we’ll drive that around the range. We’ll still be focusing on our shifting, but also on how to turn corners and take curves without driving the trailer off the road. And then… dun – dun – duuuuunnnn…. we start backing! This will be the most difficult part of learning to drive truck, and it’s great that we start so early in the course because that just gives us that much more time to hopefully perfect all the different types of backs we’ll need to know how to do.
It’s been an exciting week, and class has been going really well. Fox Valley Tech is great, and the instructors are amazing. I feel like there’s some really important stuff that’s sinking in, and there’s a lot repetition, and that’s a great way for me to learn. I think I’m going to get this!
Adam and I have some road blocks we are working on in regards to his rollover accident last February. As it turns out, this might affect our ability to get hired right away, so we’re looking around at different companies (they all have different policies), and we’re coming up with a few different game plans. We’ll definitely be hitting the road once I graduate, in one way or another, just where and how will depend on a bunch of different things.
Also, I want to mention that I hope to post some photos in this blog as I go through school, but there might not be many, simply for safety reasons. There are strict rules that our cell phones need to be OFF while operating any FVTC vehicle. This is a great rule for obvious reasons, and I’m definitely going to follow all the rules we are given. So I won’t be snapping any selfies as I drive around the range. Yes, that would be a TERRIBLE idea. I hope to eventually see if I can photograph parts of the trucks to show my readers — I just think all the buttons, switches and gauges in these trucks are so cool! So we’ll see…
Okay… I must go and do homework. I’m reading through the Wisconsin Commercial Driver’s Manual, which is thick and full of tons of super-detailed information that I need to know for my first “written” test at the DMV. Once I pass this first “General Knowledge” test, I move on to the Air Brakes and Combination Vehicle tests. When I pass all three and hand over $30 I will be given my Instructor Permit, which means I can drive on real roads with another CDL-holder over the age of 21. So on to reading. I hope to head to the DMV on Friday and take the first of the three tests, and even though we get five tries, my goal is to ace it on the first.
Thanks for following along. I wish I could share everything I’m learning, but seriously… there is so much! I hope I can pick out the most interesting stuff and not bore the crap out of you!
Today I love Saturdays. I slept in. It felt incredible.