Altitude – Knowing Your Clearance

My new boss Jim and I were on a sales trip in Western Pennsylvania. Jim only lasted a few months, and I don’t remember his last name. Jim had been a punt returner for the University of Maryland, so, likely, he didn’t remember it either.

We had driven the Demo to a major bus line and were trying to convince the owners that Eagles were the best bus for them.

Jim was nonplussed when I insisted on pulling the bus into the garage since it was clear that it was going to be a tight fit. The coach was well over 11’ high, and the door that was originally 12’ had lost some of its majesty when the garage floor was resurfaced.

The bus squeezed in, and later Jim came to understand that bus operators were reluctant to buy coaches that wouldn’t fit in their garage. This customer eventually chose a competitor with low-er clearance, in part because he figured out that even a twig or a bounce on a fast approach to his garage entrance might cause trouble.

In the aftermath of an April accident on a Long Island parkway, where a bus struck an overpass, it seemed useful (and perhaps entertaining) to revisit the subject of bus height. All of you who memorized my previous article on this topic (Click HERE to read Air Suspension) are excused from the rest of this.

The driver in the Long Island incident made it ALL the way under the overpass, although the top of the bus arrived mangled and late. Takes a head of steam to pull that off (pun intended).

A couple of things to be learned from this. The driver was using a GPS that was programmed for automobiles. Gee whiz, it had no idea that it was perched in a 12’ high motorcoach. GPS routinely fib anyway, so if we are going to use it, trust but verify. In this case that meant peeking out the windshield.

The coach driver was from another state, but the entrance to the parkway is clearly marked with regard to commercial vehicles. Clearance signs aren’t “suggestions”, but rather a signal that the law of physics stating “no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time” will be enforced.

In this case, the bus roof and bridge battled to death, and the bridge won.

It’s possible that the driver didn’t know the height of the coach. Modern buses are placarded somewhere in the driver’s area with their height. If you’re driving an unfamiliar model of coach, it’s worth checking that jewel out before a question-able clearance looms on your windshield.

Modern motorcoaches vary in height from 11’6” all the way up to 13’2”. Although most current garage doors are 14’ or more, some of those antique 12’ jobs still lurk. Interstate highways are a minimum of 13’ 6”, but beware of construction zones, building porticoes… and sneaky under-passes when you transition to local roads.

As you motate down an unfamiliar road, it is best to read the WHOLE clearance sign. Sometimes they give you the height at the side of the roadway, other times in the middle of an arched over-pass.

And occasionally signs lie. When in doubt, slow down, and even stop and look. If a road, or driveway has been resurfaced or has snow buildup there may be less clearance than advertised. Buses have been known to fib too. If yours has aftermarket equipment or antennas on top, trust-ing the manufacturer’s placard may get you into doo doo.

No two buses of the same model are EXACTLY the same height. Leveling valve adjustment isn’t always precise, so take care.

Some coaches allow the driver to raise the bus for nasty angles of departure, or lower it for special circumstances. It’s a good idea to know which position that switch is in, and how much difference it makes in the overall height of the vehicle.

It can get hairy if you lower the coach and then turn off the engine. Some models return to normal height, and if you’re parked under something low it can get ugly.

Boiled down, it’s good to be familiar with your route, and look out the windshield. That seductive voice in your GPS is NOT your friend. Trust nobody.

Bear in mind that the purveyor of this sage advice once had to back an Eagle demo all the way down the western approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Fortunately, it was late at night, and the police officers who gathered to watch the spectacle were all good sports (but there were LOTS of flashing blue lights to punctuate my folly).

I had made the mistake of trusting my “navigator” who was more adept at reading maps than the signs that clearly spelled out the impending low clearance.
We both looked up in a nick of time.

David Millhouser

Dave Millhouser started driving buses cross-country for a non-profit Christian organization called “Young Life” as a summer job in 1965. They carried high school kids from the East Coast to ranches in Colorado in a fleet that consisted of three 1947 Brills, a 1947 Aerocoach, and a 1937 Brill. Their fleet grew to 23 buses and traveled all 48 contiguous states and much of Canada.

When Young Life dropped their bus program, Dave ended up selling parts for Hausman Bus Sales. In 1978 Dave was hired by Eagle International to sell motorcoaches and spent the next 30 years doing that… 13 years with Eagle, as well as stints with MCI, Setra, and Van Hool. His first sale was an Eagle shell for a motorhome, and his career ended selling double-decker Van Hools.

Dave had a side career in underwater photography/writing, and Bus and Motorcoach News asked him to do a regular column in 2006. is an effort to make those columns available to bus people.

If you find value in them, feel free to use them at no charge. Dave would ask that you consider a donation to the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They recently merged with the Museum of Bus Transportation, and maintain a fleet of 40 historic coaches, lots of bus memorabilia, and hundreds of antique automobiles.

If you are anywhere near Hershey… Dave says, “You will love it.”

In May of 2015, the Editor of Bus & Motorcoach News called Dave a Bad Example for Motorcoach Drivers… his proudest accomplishment to date. Read the columns and you’ll see why.

Click here to reach Dave by email:

Click here to visit his website:



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