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Staff at Anderson Trucking Service in St. Cloud, Minn., join hands in front of a parked ATS truck hauling a wind blade. The blade and vehicle were on display during a celebration of American Wind Week. IMAGE: ATS

Wanted: 'Wind drivers' and others to handle oversized loads, Anderson Trucking Service’s specialty

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - “Ever wonder who sits behind the wheel of those BIG RIGS?”

That’s a slogan from my youth; I remember it as a line from a commercial for a truck-driving school. But it has come to mind again and again in recent years, as I’ve been driving down the interstate and have met or passed a truck hauling one of those long, long wind-tower blades.

“Ever wonder who sits behind the wheel of those BIG RIGS?”

You bet I have. And I’m grateful to Anderson Trucking Service of St. Cloud for helping me to find out.

For it turns out, there’s a good chance that “wind driver” is an ATS employee. ATS is the largest flatbed/specialized carrier in North America, and wind-energy components are a big part of that, said Gene Lemke, vice president of projects at the company.

“Since we started in wind back in the early 2000s, we’ve done over 200,000 wind-related components,” including blades, tower sections and nacelles, Lemke said. (The nacelle is the structure that sits atop the tower and holds the generator.)

“At any given time during the peak season, we’ll have 400 wind-related loads on the road. Just blades specifically, at our peak we’re pulling close to 100 blades on the road at one time.”

So, how does a driver learn to, say, turn corners with a blade that stretches 180 feet?

“We have a driver class system,” Lemke said.

“As drivers gain experience, they get to test up. They go from a Class 4 to a Class 3 to a Class 2 to a Class 1. In the case of blades, it’s a 1A or a 1T.

“And we take the best of our drivers and put them through a formal training program here in St. Cloud,” Lemke said.

The classroom and hands-on training involves not just the wind drivers and other heavy-haul drivers, but also the drivers of the escort vehicles.

For the real key to understanding wind-turbine transportation is the fact that it’s not just the driver. It’s the team. And the team effort can start months before the blade gets put on the trailer, Lemke said.

“For example, here’s one of our procedures,” he said.

“Before we ever turn the wheel, we send people out and measure bridges, turn radiuses, the vertical rises in the roads, the truck stops to see if we can fit into the fuel islands.

“We basically scout and then outline the risks that the wind driver will encounter.”

The First Run Report that results is the blueprint for the ride – and drivers are taught to stick to it. So, if the report says “stay right” when going under a bridge, the driver must do so, because the left lane might not offer enough clearance.

The team effort continues when the day of transport comes. Typically, the truck hauling the blade is escorted by a pole car in front and a trail car behind. The pole car boasts a height pole to double-check bridge clearances on the route.

And the trail car serves an equally important function: when the time comes for turning, the trail car’s driver steps out and helps steer, using a tethered or wireless remote to steer the back end of the trailer around corners.

That’s a tricky job, said Bill Richards, project technical advisor at ATS. “The big challenge with blades is that we can have 50 foot of load hanging off the back of a trailer. So, the pilot cars really have to watch where they’re going to make sure that doesn’t swing into houses, other cars or anything else” – especially because while the truck might be creeping forward, the blade tip will be swinging at a higher rate of speed.

“It’s really a team effort between those three drivers,” Richards said.

Back to ATS’s classrooms in St. Cloud for a minute: Once prospective wind drivers complete the training, they’re sent out on a test course throughout central Minnesota. “Kind of like a dress rehearsal, if you will,” Lemke said.

The truckers don’t actually have a blade on the blade trailer during their test run. But they do have to negotiate obstacles throughout their several-hundred-mile drive, “and they either pass or fail,” Lemke said.

Drivers who pass can start hauling loads under the supervision of an seasoned driver. Top flatbed/specialized drivers for ATS can make more than $80,000 a year, and top heavy-haul drivers can make more than $100,000, the company’s website states.

So, if a driver with a Commercial Driver’s License, a clean record and a strong interest were to contact ATS tomorrow, would the company be interested?

“Absolutely,” said Brenda Schermerhorn, marketing manager.

“On the marketing side when we’re talking about recruiting, one of the things we always say is this: ATS is not the right fit for every driver. But for the right driver, we can be a forever home.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business