A Second Life!

Ruminations from the Ramp

A Second Life!

By Tony Vasko

April 2000

Fuel tenders are sturdy beasts. They spend their lives trundling around the airports going from tank farm to airplane. The trucks range in size from now extinct 500-gallon or so oil trucks for piston-engined airliners to the mammoth sizes at the major airports that would be illegal in over-the-road use. Unlike their highway cousins, the airport tenders spend most of their time moving at relatively low speeds with much idling. They also have the need to pump their contents out unlike many of the local gasoline delivery vehicles that depend on Dr. Newton’s gravity to dump their load.

In time, the trucks that were pristine and new become somewhat worn and old. Many move to refurbishers who blast them down to strip off the old layers of faded yellow and beat out the war wounds from unauthorized contact with objects harder than they. The engines and pumps get reworked and the trucks enter a second life at the secondary airports where the calls for fueling are less strident than at the JFKs and the like.

Some trucks, however, leave the fuel world and go to other careers. I became acquainted with three of them. Two were 4000-gallon units and had been Avgas dispensers at Idlewild Airport in New York that we now call JFK. The other had belonged to Johnson Tanklines and carried god knows what petroleum products in its time. All three were "converted" to deicing duties.

The conversions were rather limited in scope mainly involving removing the meter and replacing it with a pipe. No need to meter deicing fluid. The Tankline unit had a pump-up Aerostand lashed down on top of its platform and a three-quarter inch hose with nozzle. It was the only one of the three intended to actually deice. That truck faded out of use in the early sixties to be replaced with the first wave of John Beans and others. The other two, however, served as tenders to refill the deicing rigs. One was a 1947 Mack, but my real favorite was the 1951 GMC.

One problem with deicing equipment is that it is unwanted for much of the year. It languishes in the yard of the auto shop or gets parked in some remote area until, surprise, it snows because it is winter again. Then there is a burst of resurrection as the long dead are brought to life, and the brew left in the tanks is investigated to see what it is. Every airline has its own winterization program with goals to get everything ready by September (if you are in Minnesota) or December (if you are in North Carolina). But then the company’s president comes out with an edict that all the ground equipment must be repainted in the new corporate colors (selected by his wife) by November 1. GSE managers are smart and know how to prioritize. They paint the vehicles first.

The 1947 Mack went from Avgas to glycol and then was disposed of to the volunteer fire department I belonged to. The big Mack was old and crotchety by 1962 and its red paint covered a lot of body filler. It trundled out of the firehouse on many occasions with only 3,000 gallons of water in its 4,000-gallon tank. Water after all is a lot denser than Avgas. Fortunately, the firehouse was on the highest point of Eaton’s Neck on Long Island so it could go to any emergency but usually had to be dumped to get back to bed. The return trip from beachfront homes to the 90-foot elevation of the firehouse on Long Island’s North Shore was more than it could handle.

In 1966 I took it upon myself to work on Allied Aviation at JFK to get a donation. No luck, for they passed their still valuable equipment off to a broker. My employer, Eastern Air Lines, however, came through. There was no money in the budget for new deicing equipment, but there was a bit in the repair fund. The 4,000-gallon 1952 GMC fueler was procured by the maintenance manager to become a deicing tender. It was very much an informal thing and the vehicle never got onto the company’s roles. It looked ugly, as the yellow was multi-layered and faded. You could still read 115-145 Avgas lettering on its peeling sides. Worse yet the 504 cubic-inch GMC engine was blown and the transmission made loud noises.

The auto shop at JFK was inside the hangar. With much fervent cursing the lads extricated the behemoth of an engine from under the front of the cab. The beast was obviously descended from the triple-expansion engines of the steamboat era having a stroke a mile long with pickle-barrels for pistons. The transmission was pulled too and as fall approached the now rebuilt power train went back in. At this point the financial wizards decided too much was being spent on an old truck. and they bought a new tender to dispense the glycol. The auto shop was ordered to dispose of the yellow peril.

The maintenance manager knew of my search and announced the truck was available for donation and please get it off the property by Sunday p.m. as he didn’t want the VP to see it on Monday. We called our insurance agent to get coverage and that fine Saturday I appeared at the auto shop resplendent in my FD Captain’s uniform. A few boxes of spares were loaded in the Fire Chief’s wagon, we hung fire department plates on the front and rear, and I climbed up the many feet into the cab. With a roar of the rejuvenated engine, we set out on the 45-mile trip to Eaton’s Neck.

Let me say right now that I am a maintenance and technical type which requires me to drive all sorts of strange equipment. I am not a heavy over-the-road truck driver. The sensation of sitting that high in heavy weekend traffic on the Sunrise Highway was unique. Some auto drivers did not appreciate being on the receiving end of the exhaust from the monster engine. Being a fuel truck, the muffler was under the front bumpers and exhausted to the left side and right into their open windows. The auto shop boys had done a fine job with the engine and transmission and I was able to wind it up to 55 mph which was about 30 more than it had seen since 1952. It probably was the age that caused the muffler to explode on a downshift and blow out its baffles leaving me with a straight pipe. No siren was needed.

We converted the truck, put grease cups on the Gilbarco belt-driven pump to allow it to handle water, removed the top grating and had the whole truck sandblasted and painted red. We quickly found that it was necessary to remove the isolation valves that kept the four compartments separated as a failure of the little hydraulic system that opened them left us with water we couldn’t get to. This made it interesting going down steep hills, as the water would overflow from the front tank.

The main problem was that there were few drivers. We locked the two-speed rear end in low as we weren’t going to go fast. Still, double-clutching the big tranny was more than most could handle. The worst was the need to keep the revs low. With that long stroke, a little engine overspeed spelt disaster. In 1974 I had to search for a new head. The General Motors people just laughed. A 504-inch dinosaur from 1952? No way.

It was Hughie Madden, the manager at the Newark auto shop who found one for me. Hughie was a true automotive resource. He could discuss the difficulties of changing the rear axle on a 1928 model chain drive Mack, explain the difficulty in adjusting valves on a White truck, and switch to diesel injector problems with a 90 kVA power cart. He put me on to a truck junkyard near Newark, New Jersey. It covered acres with mountains of what looked like unsorted scrap. Now a days of course they are Automotive Parts Recyclers, but the dogs still look as mean as ever.

I went over there and presented my need to a troll who inhabited the nether reaches of the lot. He scratched his four-day growth of beard with hands that had seen the oil from many an engine and said he had several. We went out into the yard and wended our way through endless rows of defunct trucks of every description and into the mountain ranges of parts. Rear-ends in twenty-foot piles here, brake drums there, transmissions yonder, and now a vast horde of engine heads. He scratched, thought, and then clambered up a way and pulled off a few assorted heads and hauled out what was indubitably a 1952 model 504 cubic inch General Motors truck engine head. Did he know what was in that pile? Could he find another one of them if this one was bad? Yes, and I believed him.

My main problem was getting them to accept a check from the Eaton’s Neck Fire Department. Junkyards are nervous about checks in the first place, out of state was even worse and who? A call to Hughie who vouched for me saved the day.

I have since moved from Eaton’s Neck and they now have a replacement tanker. Another donation of course so all you auto shop guys and ladies, be nice to those fueler tenders. They may have a second life ahead of them.