While many competitors cram book study and practice into the days before the annual United Motorcoach Association Maintenance Challenge, this year’s top finishers simply followed their personal Zen of motorcoach maintenance.
“If you don’t prepare you are wide open for whatever they throw at you,” said the 2017 Maintenance Challenge Grand Champion, Tim Brown of Huskey Trailways in Festus, Mo.
“I guess I prepared by working on these things every day. People say, ‘Once you work on buses, it gets in your blood.’”
Eric Hale, shop foreman for Holland America-Princess at the McKinley Princess Lodge near Denali State Park in Alaska, was the first runner-up in the 2017 competition, held during UMA Motorcoach Expo in St. Louis.
“I feel pride when I see pictures of my coaches on our trips,” Hale said. “That coach is the representation of me and my company and my guys. Our work is seen by people who are paying good money for their trip. That is a special side of it.”
This year’s second runner-up, Peter Haunold, is shop foreman at the Holland America-Princess shop in Anchorage, Alaska.
“You really have to be serious in this job. You are not hauling produce or freight, you are hauling guests,” Haunold said. “It is critical that our inspections are spot-on.
“Every time I see one of my coaches on the road, it is like one of my kids. I see the unit number and I can think of particular long nights I spent with it. Every coach has a story. It is neat to see the guests going to Denali and other destinations because of what we do to keep them on the road and keep them safe.”
The 2017 Maintenance Challenge attracted more than two dozen top technicians. It consisted of a written exam and hands-on motorcoach inspections, both designed to be ridiculously difficult and requiring detailed knowledge of maintenance issues and safety regulations.
“The written exam is so tough, I doubt you could hire a mechanic off of it,” said Kevin Whitworth, president and CEO of Whitworth Bus Sales in Miamisburg, Ohio. He has chaired the UMA Maintenance Interchange and Maintenance Challenge since they were introduced.
“They guys have really stepped it up and do a lot of practice and studying,” Whitworth said.
Competitors also have to inspect two motorcoaches rigged with defects. One is suspended on a hoist or parked over a pit.
The mechanics are presented a scenario.
“These buses just came back from a 30-day trip but the driver left in a hurry and took all his paperwork with him,” Whitworth said. “We don’t know if anything is wrong with them, but we just got an emergency call and need to know if we can take one of them out in an hour.”
Defects might be hiding in plain sight, such as a missing inspection decal, or stashed in the dark, such as a cut in the spare tire’s sidewall.
“Very seldom does a mechanic ace the written exam,” Whitworth said. “In 19 years only one person has found every defect on the coaches.”
“They really know how to bug a motorcoach,” agreed Haunold.
Brown, 56, who has been a bus mechanic since 1983, said his father was a motorcoach driver.
“Sometimes he would do night dispatch and I would go in with him and watch the guys work on buses when I was a kid,” he said. “Even then I was taking everything apart — motorcycles, bicycles, watches. My dad would want to kill me.”
Brown’s victory in St. Louis earned him $500 and, more importantly, a plaque recognizing him as the best in a challenging, crucial profession. The first and second runner-ups also received plaques, plus cash prizes of $200 and $100.
Why has Brown worked in motorcoach shops throughout his career?
“It is interesting. It keeps you entertained. There are a lot of challenges keeping up with what the equipment needs and with what the company needs,” he said.
The Huskey headquarters is about an hour south of St. Louis between Interstate 55 and the Mississippi River. Brown and two other mechanics are responsible for “22 motorcoaches, seven school buses, miscellaneous vans and trucks and some tractors and farm equipment. The boss likes to farm,” he said.
Technology has come a long way in the past three decades, Brown said, but many advances created new problems.
“The buses gave you less trouble in the 80s because they didn’t have so many trinkets like Wi-Fi and DVD players. Back in the day, if the air conditioning went out people just opened the windows. Today, people won’t ride if the air conditioning breaks,” he said.
“We also have a lot of problems with toilets. And if the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, you might as well cancel the trip.”
The success of Alaskan mechanics in the Maintenance Challenge may result from their annual work cycle, Hale said. After a brief, intense tourist season, all the vehicles are subject to detailed inspections so parts can be ordered for winter maintenance and upgrades.
Hale and two more mechanics maintain 23 motorcoaches, a luggage truck and four airport cutaways.
“We go 100 miles an hour, 24/7, all summer long,” he said. “Then we take a deep breath and get everything ready for the next season. I have been inspecting buses for seven years. I have generated a procedure in my mind that enables me to do a thorough inspection as smoothly as I can.
“I applied that to the competition and it worked out real well.”
The Holland America-Princess shop at McKinley Lodge may boast the best view of any bus depot in the world — just over a nearby hill is a panoramic vista of the 20,310-foot-high Denali peak.
“I tell my guys a lot that we see this million-dollar view every single day and need to remember that our guests spent a lot of money to share that experience,” said Hale, 25, who was born in Anchorage.
Haunold, 39, began working on motorcoaches 16 years ago.
“At the beginning it was probably just a job. Now I absolutely love it,” he said. “Once I left the industry for three months and missed it every day. I suppose it is the uniqueness on the technical side.”
Haunold and seven mechanics at the Holland America-Princess shop in Anchorage maintain 58 motorcoaches, 20 trucks, three semi tractors and six trailers that haul luggage.
“The motorcoach industry is a lot more advanced than what you see in trucking with the air disc brakes and multiplexing in the electrical systems,” he said.
From May through September, his fleet is on the go. Then his diagnostic skills are applied to inspections. “When October hits we bring the coaches in one by one and do a seven-page inspection to make sure every component is ready to make another season,” he said.
Whitworth will be overseeing his 20th Maintenance Challenge at the 2018 Motorcoach Expo in San Antonio in January because he believes the industry’s mechanics often are overlooked.
“I know how important that driver is. He is the one who gets his picture taken with his group at Mt. Rushmore,” Whitworth said. “But think — one mechanic could be responsible for as many as 10 or 20 motorcoaches on the road at time. That is a pretty big deal. The Maintenance Challenge is a way to say ‘thanks’ and give credit where credit is due.
“The mechanics have a very tough job. Whenever there is a mechanical problem, whatever time of day or night, they are going to get a call.”
But being overlooked can be a mechanic’s goal, Brown said.
“When I have motorcoaches all over the place — in New Orleans and Orlando and D.C. and Utah — and they don’t call me, I really like it.”