The Chieftain's Hatch: The Gravity of Tanks

I’m going to go personal op-ed this week, for a little PSA.

You will likely now be familiar with the accident a couple of weeks ago involving an M18 GMC in Oregon, which resulted in the deaths of two people, Steve Preston, and Austin Lee. This hit us particularly strongly as we were at Steve’s ranch onlya few days prior. We had met Steve prior, at Tankfest NorthWest, and he was nice enough to give rides to some of our employees just because. He was also an avid player of World of Tanks, with over 6,000 battles tallied, of which over a third were in the M18.

The cause of the incident is still being investigated, but this is now the third death this year that I’m aware of involving a privately owned tank in the US. It is worth at this point, I think, reflecting upon the nature of the beasts which give us so much enjoyment.

We currently have an advertising campaign running, named “Hell yeah, tanks.” You’ve probably seen the Youtube videos. The premise is simple: Tanks are cool. Let me get this one thing out of the way first. Absolutely! They are, inherently, totally, awesomely cool. I am incredibly happy to be able to call myself a tanker. (Well, I guess ex-tanker, since my tank got swapped out for a Bradley back in 2008, and I’ve been driving a desk since 2013). Had I known back then what I know now, I’d have gotten into tanks even earlier.

That said, there is a line that I start with whenever I’m giving a safety brief and introducing people to tanks. That is “Tanks are designed to hurt people, and they don’t care who.” We’re in the US, where firearms are entirely routine, and usually people treat them with the respect that they deserve.  Tanks, however, are not so routine, and sometimes I get a little concerned that people get so overwhelmed with the ‘cool’ factor, that they forget the realities behind them.

Now, I want to be clear here. I am not referring to Steve and Austin, who had been around the machinery for years with great experience. Accidents happen to the best of us, even when we take precautions and follow procedures. Almost anything we do for fun has inherent risks, from parachuting, to skiing, even with people who are experienced. I’m more referring to folks who are visiting at museums, events, or volunteering to operate and maintain them. Almost every person associated with tanks has had a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment, where all those safety lessons change from being ‘something you know in the back of your mind’ to ‘one momentary lapse can be permanent.’ In my case, I have a scar on my arm from an Abrams ammunition door. As it was opening on my arm which was stuck in the semi-ready rack, I had resigned myself to the fact that my left arm was gone. I bless the designer who put the sensors on the TC’s edge of the door as well as the loader’s. Served me right for not checking that my loader had tripped Circuit Breaker 19. A simple and small omission.

So, if you’re planning on going to be around tanks in the civilian world at a show, museum, or whatnot, here’s a couple of safety tips to bear in mind.

1)      Eveything on a tank is heavy, everything is solid. There are lots of ways to lose inquisitive fingers when hatches close, or if one loses balance at the wrong moment and so on. Keep an eye on the young ones. It can also be very easy to fall off a tank, the mantra in the US Army is “Three points of contact”

2)      For the morbidly curious, it is easy to find on the internet photographs of what can happen when people wear their wedding rings around a tank. Similar effect to people who wear wedding rings around other pieces of heavy machinery. They are not sights that you ever want to see in real life, the photographs are bad enough.

3)      Visibility is incredibly limited. You think you have issues with the blind spot on your car, that’s nothing compared to an AFV. Obviously the most important thing to be concerned about is standing next to a vehicle, but not exclusively so. If a turret turns, for example, the chances are the operator has absolutely no idea who or what is nearby. Head/turret interfaces have resulted in the deaths of multiple soldiers, and no few limbs have been amputated inside the vehicle either.

And, of course, there is the military side of things. If you have a desire to join the military, I absolutely encourage you to consider armor branch. However, please don’t join the military in order to work/play with tanks, this is the wrong reason. There are sacrifices up to, and including your life. This is what I might term “Not cool.”

Usually a couple of times a year, we remind ourselves in the game that tanks are actually serious business, usually Memorial Day and last week's Rememberance/Veteran’s Day. They are machines of death and destruction, created for a purpose nobody wants and we must always be mindful of the reality behind them, especially when we encounter them in the real world.

I extend my personal condolences to the next of kin of those lost in this incident. They died doing something which they loved, and we must not let this incident dissuade those of us who love tanks from continuing to work with them and keep them operating to the best of our ability.

Bob will link you to the forum.

As ever, my Facebook page remains here, my Youtube channel here, and Twitch stream (Every Tuesday, and (very) occasional evenings) is here.