Life in the Heavy Metal lane
Journalist Rob Richardson visits Wiltshire-based Heavy Lift transport company FTX Logistics to find out more about their drive for new Operators and Maintainers.
There’s a 20 ton Oshkosh M1070F truck pulling into the barracks at Bulford, in Wiltshire. With the 26 Ton trailer attached, it takes a full three seconds to pass me. The cold autumn rain has given the twenty four metre long vehicle a dull sheen. It’s so enormous, the air seems to vibrate with raw power as it drives past and parks alongside the other dark green Heavy Equipment Transporters lined up in the enormous vehicle park. An Incredible Hulk of a vehicle.
I’ve been invited to Bulford to find out a little bit more about FTX Logistics, a Heavy Lift transport company responsible for providing the Ministry of Defence’s heavy armour transport capability. This includes the upkeep and delivery of these incredible machines and their current recruitment drive for new Operators and Maintainers.
Almost all 92 of these Heavy Equipment Transporters, or HETs, have been involved in supporting armoured vehicle deployments in locations including Iraq and Afghanistan, Mönchengladbach in Germany, Estonia and tasking throughout the UK in support of the Army. The driver of the HET I was witnessing gets marshalled into the oversized parking space and the immense 18 litre engine, the height of two men, shudders off. The barracks almost seems to fall silent.
“How was the journey?” the Maintainer asks the driver, as they open the cab door and climb down to the tarmac. The mechanic had spent the previous two days trying to resolve a transmission fault. The previous driver had described the lorry as ‘a little jumpy’.
“She ran like a dream,” the female driver reports. “No problems.” She indicates over my shoulder, acknowledging the tanks being lined up at the far end of the vehicle park.
There are five 62-tonne Challenger 2 battle tanks primed and ready to go. One is currently being loaded onto a trailer. A flurry of activity surrounds the tank and HET, a team of Operators and Maintainers in hi-vis jackets observing the tank being drawn up onto the 7-axle King GTS 110/7 semi-trailer. Chains clank and strain, the chassis groans and sinks, as the 26 litre Perkins engine of the Challenger roars and inches itself forward, ton by ton. The operators have done this a thousand times before, but there’s the same careful observation and skilful application as there was the first time. This £4million tank needs to get to the ranges on time and without issues.
The air fills with the smell of diesel and the commands of the Operators. The FTX Operator provides instruction to the driver of the tank, manoeuvring it into place. The precision control seems at odds to the size and power of the Challenger.
There are 85 Operators and Maintainers employed by FTX Logistics. Since 2001 they’ve been contracted to deliver the HET service on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Andy, one of the operators, declares; “I spent seventeen years in the army. Loved it, and when it came time to leave I knew I wanted to do something which was equally as challenging but different to any normal job. I didn’t just want to go into an office or an everyday delivery job.”
“We’ve got a fantastic and diverse team here,” says Mike Holt, Operations Director at FTX. “Many are ex-service men and women, who left the forces and wanted a new challenge. It is challenging and demanding work, but it’s hugely rewarding too.”
Another of the HETs is being slowly reversed into the garage workshop on the far side of the yard and we follow it inside. Everything here seems to be oversized, the tyres, the chains and cranes to lift the vehicles, even the tools. There are three Maintainers in orange overalls in the garage, two working on a HET already with its bonnet open, a third watching the new HET arrive.
“I’m just an operator,” says Andy, “one the people who gets the heavy metal where it needs to be. These Maintainers keep us on the road.”
I ask Andy if he only drives FTX HET vehicles. His answer surprises me. “No, when I’m not needed for MoD tasks, I drive an HGV for a local supermarket.”
Mike explains. “What makes working for FTX so unique is that the job is part civilian commercial work and part in support of the MoD. So, one day you’ll be driving a 118 ton loaded HET, the next you might be driving an HGV for a retailer. No two days are ever the same.” Andy proudly interjects. “Last week I was on a fire engine driver refresher course in London!”
Vehicles as complex as the Oshkosh M1070F require ongoing, and a strict, servicing regime to ensure roadworthiness and that they won’t fail in critical situations. Jonathan is one of these experts, a FTX Maintainer currently waiting for the HET we followed to park up. “I started as an apprentice,” he says, “FTX providing me with a great platform and all the resources to learn the skills and knowledge I needed to become a HET technician.” He’s been qualified for a number of years now, meaning he’s free to work in the large, clean and safe workshop, a great environment to carry out the day-to-day servicing and maintenance of all the vehicles which come under the FTX remit. “It’s been fantastic for me,” he says. “Being able to work on these vehicles is such a thrill and, what’s more, it’s allowed me to work around the UK, overseas and away on military deployments.”
Rachael, the driver who’s brought the HET into the garage agrees. “You have experiences here I doubt you’ll ever have in other jobs.” I ask her if she was nervous when first applying for a role in what many might consider to be a male environment. “A little, I suppose,” she says. “It is a physically demanding job, but you don’t need to be physically strong to do it, just have the stamina and the passion. The training really helps, as do the military exercises.”
It’s impossible to forget that FTX, and the work they do, is part of the military. You’re surrounded by it everywhere you look in Bulford. I spot a group of Operators and Maintainers, dressed in army fatigues, arriving back from an exercise. They look exhausted, dirty, but jubilant.
“We’re just back from a three day military exercise with the army on Salisbury Plain,” one of them announces. “Two nights sleeping under the stars and lugging thirty five kilograms of heavy machine-gun and ammo, all the time being shot at by enemy. I’m ready for a bath!” he beams.
Mike Holt tells me how the military exercises are critical to the role of HET Operators and Maintainers. “Our men and women train as Army Sponsored Reservists for 35 days active duty per year. They have to, not only because the Reservists make up a critical part of the Army, but importantly because our drivers and mechanics find themselves in war zones. They need to be trained and prepared for any eventuality.”
I assume that all FTX employees are ex-military, but one of those just back from exercise says that’s not true. “I used to work in a car showroom in Swindon!” he laughs. “After years of the commute and the boring day to day, I decided I wanted a new challenge. I had a NVQ Level 3 mechanic qualification and heard that there were loads of great opportunities in the HGV industry. What really interested me about FTX was this,” he says, holding up his muddy uniform, “mucking in, going out on exercise, pushing myself to the limit. Basically, doing something completely different and the package is pretty amazing too.”
A HET Operator salary has an On Target Earning of £36 – £42k with Reserves Bounty and uplifts for operational deployment, whilst a Maintainer starts from £35k. All HET Operators are based at home and drive to and from Bulford, in Wiltshire, and Catterick, in North Yorkshire, as well as occasionally deploying to the base in Mönchengladbach to carry out HET taskings and maintenance work.
Across the vehicle park, the Challenger tank has now been secured to the semi-trailer and is being driven away, whilst another is being readied to be loaded onto a second HET. “Looks like you’re busy,” I ask Dave, another Operator who will be joining the convoy of HET and tanks for the drive to Castlemartin.
“There’s always something which needs moving, loading or fixing,” he says, checking his notes regarding the drive ahead. “It can get stressful at times, making sure things are where they need to be, on time and in good working order. But our line managers are very supportive and there’s great camaraderie between all of us.”
Mike’s keen to impress on me the current recruitment campaign FTX are running. “We are actively recruiting at the moment,” he informs me. “We really need technically capable and physically fit Operators and Maintainers. With some of our staff approaching retirement age, we need to look for new drivers and mechanics.”
I tell him I might almost be tempted. He looks me up and down and asks what I’m like behind the wheel of a truck. I tell him I drive a Fiat Panda and I’ve never fired a rifle in my life. He tells me it’s okay, the job comes with six months training. They’ll soon whip me into shape.
We leave the HETs to the professionals on the vehicle park and in the garage and walk back across the yard to the FTX offices. The fifth and final tank has been secured on its trailer by the expert team of men and women. A group of regular soldiers arrive and are impressed. It’s a good job, but there’s no time for congratulations yet. These armoured vehicles are required in Castlemartin and it’s time to get on the road.