Floyd Vincent and Mary Falvo working as pilot car drivers 2008.07.23

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Floyd Vincent seems an unlikely choice for a pilot car driver. He readily admits to something that just doesn’t fit.

“I don’t really like to drive,” said the rural Wauseon resident. “I just don’t enjoy it.”

But it brings in some extra cash and there are certainly worse ways to make money. Besides that, the view is constantly changing.

“It’s nice to see different sights,” Floyd said, and that’s something a pilot car driver is always experiencing.

They’re the people with the “Wide Load” signs driving ahead of and behind a semi-truck carrying a manufactured home or an enormous culvert or any of a myriad of large items along the highway.vincent.pilot_car.jpg

Hauling manufactured homes is where Floyd got his start in the business. He accompanied homes delivered by Continental Estates of Wauseon.

After a couple of years, he went out on his own, forming his own service under the name Penny’s Pilot Car, operated by Floyd’s wife, Connie.

It’s more of a family affair than that. Floyd’s daughter, Mary Falvo, is also in the business.

For Floyd, it’s a part-time endeavor. After all, he has to be back to the pulpit every Sunday at the East Chesterfield Church and the Winameg Christian Church.

Mary, on the other hand, is trying to make it into a full-time job. She approached the job as a part-time endeavor a year ago, but now she’s on the road a lot.

Getting started

To become a pilot car driver, the most important piece of equipment is a dependable vehicle. In addition, a car must carry signs, flags and cones to use in the case of a breakdown; a safety vest and hard hat for the driver; a fire extinguisher; and communication equipment such as a CB radio and cell phone. A light bar for the top of the car is also an essential investment for drivers.

Training can come through books and classroom time, but an excellent introduction comes from traveling with another driver.

“The best thing is if you know someone in the business,” Floyd said.

“Sometimes they’ll let you travel with them to see if you really like it,” Mary added.

Certification courses are required for some states, notably Utah which has the toughest regulations.

“If you’re good for Utah, you’re good for any state,” Mary said. “They have the most restrictions.”

Every state is different, Floyd noted. He picked up a load at the Blue Water Bridge in Michigan and accompanied the truck to the Indiana state line. He was done at that point because that particular load didn’t need an escort in Indiana.

Too wide, too long, too tall—the definition of oversize varies all across the country. Some loads require one escort, others need two.

Some drivers provide “high pole” service—a pole mounted on the vehicle that detects wires or a bridge that are too low for the load.

On the road

Once on the road, the pilot car driver provides two services: warning other drivers about the oversize load; warning the driver of the truck about obstacles ahead.

The job entails a lot more than just sitting back and driving.

“There’s continuous contact between the driver and the escort by CB,” Mary said. “Your main job is to keep the motoring public safe and the load and its driver safe.”

Narrow bridges, pedestrians, bicyclists, buggies in Amish country—a truck driver needs to be aware of any impending difficulty.

The lead driver also needs to pay attention to road signs and make sure the travelers stay on their route.

“We’re there to watch out for all those things,” Floyd said, emphasizing the responsibilities of the job.

If a breakdown occurs, the pilot car driver takes on a new role—but once again, that depends on where the breakdown occurs. In some states, pilots are out directing traffic; in other states, they’re not allowed to.

Floyd limits his travel due to his duties as a pastor. He’s visited 10 states, but never travels too far away. The day his trip ended at the Indiana border, he immediately picked up another job by driving north to Ludington.

Mary, with more time and fewer commitments, is willing to travel most anywhere. She was out in Arizona when she landed another trip back east to Kentucky. Floyd once found the perfect situation. He was far from home when he was assigned to a load heading to Wauseon.

When a trip ends, a pilot can wait around in hopes of getting another job—by keeping in touch with a broker—or give up and head back home alone, an act known as deadheading.

Sometimes Floyd’s wife goes along on the job and then he’s more willing to wait a night or two in hopes of something else.

“Sometimes you think it’s a day run,” Mary said, “and then you get another job. You never know how long it’s going to be.”

That’s all right with her.

“I like to travel and I like to drive,” she said. “If you work really hard one week, you can take a couple of days off.”

She has a flexible schedule and she can turn down a job if she wants.

In recent weeks, Floyd and Mary haven’t had quite as much choice. Higher fuel prices combined with a slow economy have reduced truck traffic.

They remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice whenever a call comes in. The car is always gassed up and Floyd has a duffel bag packed in his car.

Mobile homes, bridge beams, bases for wind turbines, factory equipment, giant farm equipment, steel beams—whatever it might be, Floyd and Mary are ready to serve as guides on the journey.

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