Over all the clatter and sweat and roar and reek of diesel, the thought occurs to me: I just muzzle-swept San Francisco with 152mm worth of tank barrel.
I look over at the man keeping an eye on this ridiculous operation. He’s wearing a “Fartacus” t-shirt and a helmet with the letters ‘TDMF’ painted in bold red enamel on the forehead. “TD” stands for “Tank Driving.” You can guess the rest. He’s inches away from the driver’s compartment, hanging on for dear life and grinning exactly as much as I am.
I let the M551 Sheridan clatter to a near stop on level ground and engage first gear, then turn the tank on its axis, applying a healthy stab of throttle and lots of right lock. We pivot a perfect 180 degrees and come to a stop aimed down an oak-lined dirt road. The TDMF says, “Alright, it’s all yours!” and slides off the bow of the tank.
I can’t believe how easy the Sheridan is to drive. Alex O’Neill, operator and mechanic, walked me through the process 10 minutes ago, and now he’s letting me loose in the thing. Start with with the brakes in by applying all your weight and strength to the pedal on the left. Disengage the fuel cutoff. Turn the fuel pump on and listen for the loud whine to tell you it’s working. Thumb the ignition, and all hell breaks loose.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Sheridan. Maybe that’s partly because I never had to do the maintenance on a 30 year old engine with a poor supply of parts.
While I was qualified and licensed to drive certain armored vehicles, such as the M113 and the M2 Bradley, I was never assigned as a driver for one. All my full time driving duty was in wheeled vehicles like the Humvee. Still, as a Bradley commander, it was kinda fun to kick the driver out of his hatch once in a while and take the old girl for a spin.
It’s not like driving one is terribly technically difficult. Being a good tactical driver takes practice. But just bouncing around enjoying driving one is pretty easy.
Back in the mid-1990s, while the Army was facing a round of base closures, my brigade happened to be at Pinon Canyon Maneuver Training Area doing some training. And one day, my vehicle happened to have some problems with the fire control system that precluded us from playing with the others in a big mock battle. But the Army had invited a large contingent of VIPs from the Colorado community to visit PCMTA to see what the Army was up to. There was a large grandstand overlooking the valley where today’s battle was to be fought. And so, someone had the bright idea that, since we weren’t contributing to the battle, we should go display our vehicle for the VIPs. After frantically cleaning the worst of the mud and dirt from the inside, and restowing our gear as neatly as possible (and taking down the posters of scantily clad women that used to be found inside armored vehicles), we started giving the VIPs a walk through of the Bradley. Here’s the back where the grunts, sit, here’s the turret, and here’s the driver’s seat. That got boring, so we started giving them rides around the area. After a while, even that got boring, so we let one or two of them drive just a little bit. The Bradley has an automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes. It takes just a few minutes to understand the basics. And really, the hardest thing to convince the novice drivers of was that the gas pedal really has only two positions. Off and all the way down. If you want to get a Bradley to start rolling, you really need to mash the pedal down.
Eventually some tight-waisted staff officer had kittens about us letting civilians drive my Bradley around, and put a stop to it. But for the men and women we let drive, it was surely a highlight of their visit to the Army.
And by the way, Fort Carson and Pinon Canyon stayed open.