The Airport's First ‘BIG MACK’

Early American aviators filled their fuel tanks by pumping gas and oil into cans, then pouring it through a funnel lined with a chamois to collect contaminants. Some small aircraft owners and back country fliers still do. Specialized tankers commonly appeared at airports hauling fuel to underground tanks after WWII. But as early as 1910, trucks hauling liquids to homes, farms, factories and gas stations found their way to the airfield.

The push to develop a network of modern airports caught on when Charles Lindbergh flew across the U.S. (and elsewhere) during his 1927-1928 “Good Will Tour.” He advised civic leaders where to best place a landing field, and like Johnny Appleseed’s orchards, municipal airports sprouted wherever Lindbergh landed. Between 1927 and WWII, America’s new airports were thirsty for safe, convenient delivery of kerosene, oil, gasoline and water.

Truck companies began adapting tanks to their chasses and since the 1920s Americans favored “the Mack,” which appeared beside hangers sporting petroleum company logos along its 12- to 15-foot tank. The rugged Mack with its distinctive tall, wide cab and bulldog hood ornament was built to last for years. Fitted with nozzles, hoses (and still utilizing funnels), fuel trucks arrived beside aircraft each with tanks at a different height. Step ladders were standard equipment.

Transcontinental Air Transport set forth refueling procedures outlined in a corporate memo to Lindbergh, then its operations consultant. Arriving Tri-Motors topped off their capacity for 230 gallons after the pilot taxied in “to run gas from lines and carburetors ... thereby saving time in stopping propellers.” TAT’s ground crew was expected to follow the next six steps:

1) The field clerk brings a step ladder and two gas funnels with him and climbs up to top of wing from front of ship, as the assistant pilot goes through top [of aircraft].

2) The gas truck driven by field mechanic pulls up ... 4 feet from the ship. The mechanic immediately places blocks in front of wheels and hands the two hoses up to the assistant pilot and field clerk, who by this time are both on top of ship. Each handling a hose, with flow of 30 gallons per minute, ship should be gassed approximately in three minutes.

3) The field clerk upon completion of gassing his tank, replaces hoses on truck ... After this, he returns to the teletype machine. In all he should not be absent from it more than six minutes.

4) After gassing his tank, assistant pilot returns to cockpit and makes ready for starting of motors.

5) Upon OK signal from field manager and pilot, the mechanic, after driving his truck away, starts the three motors.

6) Pilot and passengers re-enter ship and at signal from the pilot, blocks are pulled.

Pre-WWII fuel trucks used at airports have become part of the nostalgia for oil company equipment fostering collections of “Sky Chief,” “Dino” and “Fleet Wing” signs, and the restoration of vintage trucks and pumps. Texaco sells scale models its early trucks, airplanes and pumps decorated with their star logo. But some collectors want the real thing.
Researcher and columnist Scott Anderson offers advice for those restoring vintage fuel dispensing equipment in his articles for “Petroleum Collectables Monthly.” With breathless enthusiasm Anderson has chronicled “the wonderful world of the gasoline pump hose,” and pump nozzles.

According to Anderson, the earliest systems for both automobiles and aircraft were nothing more than water hose conversions connected to above ground barrels or stroke pumps. Between 1909 and 1939, hoses for the sole purpose of dispensing gasoline were developed, and Anderson writes, “By 1910, almost all gasoline pump manufacturers had added portable hose and nozzle discharge systems to their pumps.” They were constructed with an internal interlocking metal hose with a thin rubber middle and exterior cloth cover. Among those that manufactured the new style hoses were Goodrich and Goodyear.

Vintage Macks enjoy a pampered after-life in parades, special events and museums. Mack truck expert Dennis Meehan owns OLDMACKS, a company which trades worldwide in Macks built between 1900 and 1970. From him I learned about the development of proper manhole seals, tanks divided to carry kerosene, farm gas and oil, and baffles to keep liquid loads balanced en route. “Specialized airport fuel trucks evolved from taking what worked on hearses, tractors, fire trucks and wagons,” says Meehan. Some were major changes to non-ferrous materials and some were small, like adding a windshield. Don Schumaker is the curator of the The Mack Museum in Michigan and custodian of the original design specs of a Mack sold to Texaco in 1910. The tank was 46 inches in diameter and 12 feet long. Held to the truck chassis by four strap irons, the tank was divided into three sections, each with a raised “manhole dome.”

Manufactured in Pennsylvania, “This might be the first complete fuel tank truck delivered by Mack,” writes Schumaker. The solid, reliable 1910 truck already painted with the Texaco star (but no bulldog logo) was fitted with “regular” front and back truck lights, steering wheel, fender and tires.

Street legal or not, the noble Mack fuel truck traveled to its first job in Massachusetts by train.

About the AUTHOR: Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian, former museum director and archaeologist. She is the 2008 recipient of the DAR History Medal and nationally recognized expert on the life of Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed female pilot (1911). Learn more about her various aviation history projects at: