Device Is Saving Soldier's Lives
Soldiers at Fort Bragg are taking turns training in the HEAT, thanks to an Aberdeen company that hopes its revolutionary design will save lives.
Humvee rollovers have been killing and wounding hundreds of Americans since the war started in Iraq.
Troops have died when their vehicles flipped over. Some burned to death or drowned in two inches of water after hitting a culvert because they didn't know how to get out, the military said.
The Army needed to train troops on how to get out of a crashed Humvee. Its first effort was a jury-rigged chassis mounted on a flatbed trailer. It was a practice Humvee that could be turned on its side or upside down. Soldiers could practice exit strategies and skills.
That first trainer worked well enough that the military decided to put the devices into production. The Army dubbed the thing a "Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer," or HEAT.
The Army name for it has changed -- it is now officially termed a High-mobility-multipurpose-wheel-vehicle Egression Assistance Trainer -- but it's still called "the HEAT."
It is meant to save lives, showing soldiers what it is going to be like if and when a vehicle flips and teaching them what to do if that happens.
The latest, much improved models are being built in Aberdeen by Jimmy Thompson's Southeastern Tool & Die Co. Along with other improvements, he found a way to make the chassis rotate completely.
His Humvee isn't limited to a single 180-degree flip like the makeshift first one. It can roll over and over and over, like rolling down a hill just the way a real vehicle might.
He devised a way to operate the trainer manually, too.
Thompson, or anybody using his HEAT version, can turn a Humvee over with one hand, using a crank.
Early last year, soldiers from the U.S. Army's FORSCOM (Forces Command) walked into Thompson's office with snapshots of that first HEAT.
The Army needed the trainer in production. Lives were at stake. All the soldiers had was a PowerPoint presentation with photos and a brief description of the only HEAT, a home-built unit in Kuwait.
"The guys from Fort Bragg came by one day with a picture somebody came up with," Thompson said. "It had failed. All the ones they tried had failed. Shafts broke, things like that. They had mostly been undersized for the stresses involved. We built it where it would handle it, by going two to three times over what we calculated would be required for it to run safely."
He pulled a fresh sheet of paper out onto his desk and started thinking and sketching.
Other versions of HEAT were not entirely failures, according to Juan R. Rodriguez, project officer at Army Field Logistics Readiness Center at Fort Bragg (FLRC-BRAGG) of the Army Sustainment Command Forward. Some worked the way they were supposed to, even though they didn't have the improved features Thompson came up with at Aderdeen.
"There were some failures," he said. "Some worked as intended -- just not as sophisticated as ours or with all the features we wanted and/or invented."
Rodriguez filled Thompson in on the need for training.
Looking at the PowerPoint presentation, Rodriguez saw how it could save lives. He also saw problems with every one built so far.
"I saw tremendous potential for increasing paratroopers' valuable safety training as well as big operational flaws on this prototype," he said. "Apparently the idea first surfaced during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan when HMMWV rollovers happened during normal operations or as results of attacks. Our troops were getting killed, trapped inside vehicles and becoming easier targets for the sorry dirtbag enemies of our country. The HEAT provides a means where a crew can get in it, buckled down, and trained to exit the vehicle."
Turned over, or upside down, and under enemy fire -- perhaps under water -- soldiers who had not been trained for these circumstances could become disoriented and get in their own way.
"Initially, the plan was for units to build their own, using their own military manpower and skills," Rodriguez said. "Shortly after they started, the Army came up with a centralized plan to build them at a depot somewhere and/or bid it out for commercial contract.
"Once I was provided the funding and green light to proceed, I put my 'Mission Impossible' staff to work on researching the project and finding the best way to quickly do the Captain Kirk stuff and build this 'Starship Enterprise.' This was one of the most complex projects we have done here (at Bragg). It took what we call a 'total team of teams' effort of Army troops, Army civilians, and contracting partners like Mr. Jimmy Thompson and his crew.
"Southeastern Tool & Die was chosen as our outsourcing partner due to the tremendous above-and-beyond cooperation from Mr. Thompson, his pricing, and (his being) a one-stop provider for any of the services needed for project completion."
Thompson saw right away that soldiers would need to train for more than a simple turnover.
To be effectively usable, he decided his version of HEAT would be fully transportable and able to work anywhere in the world, with or without electricity or other power source. Thompson started from the ground up, designing and building a prototype at his Aberdeen plant.
Southeastern Tool & Die is a lot more than a garage workshop. Thompson has invested millions of dollars in sophisticated computer-controlled equipment and machinery needed for highly technical development and production.
There are lasers that cut through heavy armor plate, through steel. There are powerful benders that can shape heavy metal. Southeastern just installed a powder-coat system able to handle anything from a full size Humvee to the smallest of parts.
He thought long and hard about the circumstances soldiers encounter.
"A soldier will weigh 250 pounds with his gear," Thompson said. "When you have four or five soldiers inside, it is a mess inside. A door weighs over 200 pounds on an armored Humvee. If it rolls on 90 degrees, you have to push that door straight up."
It might not roll just once. It might cartwheel down an incline and into a river. Thompson figured his HEAT would have to do more than roll over 180 degrees. It would have to spin.
"Some are being shot at, some are in water," he said. "We designed this to variable speeds to simulate a fast rollover or slow, a half-over, upside down, or any direction, any angle. It trains a soldier for, when his Humvee is turned over, how to get out without panicking.
"They train soldiers not to panic, not to climb all over each other, but to get out safely no matter what position the vehicle ends up in. They'll also use it for training Medevac people for -- when one does roll over -- how to get people out that are hurt."
When Rodriguez arrived in Aberdeen to inspect the prototype, something about it looked very familiar. He had to laugh when he realized what it was.
"It was the biggest Rotisserie I've ever seen," he said with a laugh. "If you could build a fire under it, it could handle a 5,000-pound hog -- if you could find a hog that big."
Just as had been done with the Army's first built-from-scratch HEAT, Rodriguez started with junk and spare parts. He took an Army surplus Hummer chassis to Aberdeen for Thompson to work from. He had commandeered it from a disposal yard.
It was an Up Armored M1114 -- which is an armor-plated version of the Hummer that U.S. troops are using both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It was important -- to maximize training effect -- that we do this as close as possible to what a real M1114 feels and looks like, especially the doors," Rodriguez said. "Each one weighs 245 pounds."
They went to work on their scrapped Hummer.
"We cut that M1044 Hummer up, prepped it, and mounted it on a spit like a pig on a rotisserie," he said. "We did not follow the original concept (model) that was mounted on a skid. We'd immediately known that would not be the best solution for the 82nd Airborne Division operational needs.
"It would be hard to move around, could only be used in one location and (only in a) centralized training format, etc. So we invented and fabricated a trailer from the wheels up that can be towed anywhere by the unit's organic Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles trucks (FMTVs)."
They kept their commanding colonel informed, and he backed the design team all the way, Rodriguez said.
"We always obtained approval from Lt. Col. Kurt Ryan and his great staff for any idea or changes we recommended before they were executed to ensure we did not miss the commander's intent," he said. "It truly took the total 'team of teams' approach to make this happen in short (time) for our soldiers. My whole team is very proud that Lt. Col. Ryan and the 82nd Airborne Battalion Division leadership trusted the FLRC-Bragg Team of Teams with this very important paratroopers' safety project."
First Unit in Training
The final HEAT developed by Thompson, Rodriguez and their teams is hydraulically operated. It is powered by a 220/208 volts AC motor with a control box that has provisions either for one or three phase power or for Army tactical generator power.
In use, operators primarily will put it through its pace using a wired remote-control box. Their HEAT version also has a manually operated hand crank and gear box assembly, invented and patented by Thompson, in case power fails or is not available in the field.
Using Thompson's patent crank system, the whole Humvee chassis -- fully loaded with battle-geared soldiers -- can easily be rotated in a 360-degree radius with one hand.
The complete trailer-mounted HEAT is 23 feet two inches long. It weighs 11,080 pounds. Thompson avoided anything proprietary in the way of components. Its trailer uses common military Hummer tires, trailer tongue and a military-standard 24-volt DC lighting system.
"We used off-the-shelf parts, strictly off-the-shelf," Thompson said. "We tried to buy everything so it would be easily replaceable. Ninety percent is not custom made, it is something easy to order -- most hydraulic parts, electronic parts -- it's not proprietary.
"We want them to keep running, not wait around trying to get something they need. The way I look at it, we are here to save a soldier's life. We don't want to have to make something every time they need it, if they could order next day from regular supply houses. A lot do that so they can charge more money. I am not into that. We feel very strongly about saving some lives."
Sound and video systems support HEAT training.
"We added a wireless intercom system by which the primary instructor can clearly communicate with the crew inside and give them exit commands in accordance with the Army's newly developed HEAT training circular," Rodriguez said. "We also added a cushioned landing platform and 'secondary fall' safety-rail prevention system, and a wireless camera, monitor and VCR system. Instructors can observe a crew inside the vehicle while training is going on and record it to use for After Actions Reviews (AARs), for performance critiques of crews in training, and to apply lessons learned and correct any mistakes that could result in injuries or higher risk."
The first Aberdeen-designed HEAT went to work training soldiers at Fort Bragg.
"It is training soldiers right now," Thompson said. "They are running them through it every day."
Following a safety briefing, students enter the HEAT wearing all of their personal protective gear and strap themselves in. An instructor tips the trainer a bit this way and that at first, just to get trainees used to movement. Then he turns the Humvee all the way over.
Trainees practice taking their seat belts off, unlatching combat locks on doors (or floor or roof hatches) and getting out as quickly as they can. On an average, it takes 20 to 30 seconds to escape a rolled-over Humvee chassis. Getting out fully loaded with gear takes teamwork, and that is what they practice.
"There are rollovers during regular training, accidental ones, that have been dangerous also," Thompson said. "This training will help protect soldiers in those situations too -- give them a much better comfort zone. They practice working as a team to get out."
Saving Soldiers' Lives
The military wants more HEAT and quickly.
Rodriguez and Thompson knew what they were designing and building could save lives.
"The guys at Fort Bragg -- Juan Rodriguez -- were super guys, great to work with," Thompson said. "We were all on the same team for the same reason. And it helps the Army having a company right here close to Fort Bragg with design, engineering and manufacturing capability to do something like this, prototypes or production. We hope by doing it right, that it will bring us more military business down the road."
Rodriguez said his team had done its shopping. They had made comparisons and done the math on costs.
"We researched multiple vendors, but could not find any that provided the best overall value and service Southeastern Tool & Die provided for us," he said. "Simply put, Mr. Jimmy Thompson and his crew bent over backwards to do what we asked of him -- and then some."
This was more than a business deal. American lives were at stake, according to Rodriguez.
"Like for us, it also became more than just a job for him," Rodriguez said. "It became a 'No Fail Mission' that -- come heck or high water -- we all set our minds to get done for our troops. Our model was described by the Army's safety certification folks as well as our VIP 82nd Airborne Division customers as 'The best in the Army.' This was certainly one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I have ever taken on in my nearly 35 years of service."
Hopes are high that the planned widespread HEAT training will reduce rollover injuries and end fatalities. As of last summer, there had been some 250 rollover injuries and 90 rollover deaths since the start of the Iraq war.
"The big thing is, we are real excited we are able to do something that will save soldierslives," Thompson said. "You know you will have a direct impact on saving a soldier's life."
John Chappell can be reached at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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