Sign up for The Wire Newsletter!

Truck Topics

Fightin' Freightliners

By Tom Berg
Posted May 29th 2002 6:00AM

road_issues937a.jpgThis is not your father's Army truck. I can say that because I'm probably as old as your father, and if he was in the U.S. Army when I was, in the mid-1960s, he'll tell you that it didn't have trucks like this Freightliner.

Then again, the civilian world back then didn't have trucks like this, either. But it does now, and the Army is taking advantage of modern truck technology by militarizing a proven civilian design and sending it out to support constant training – and these days, deployment – of combat troops.

Why the Army buys road tractors is a story in itself. But if you've ever driven a Freightliner FLD120 conventional, you'd feel right at home in this M915A3 “military truck, tractor,” per official nomenclature. When you see it has most of the creature comforts you're used to, you might even want to enlist.

Several GI drivers I talked with at Fort Campbell, Ky., like their jobs so much they're “lifers,” intent on sticking with the Green Machine for 20 years or more. “I'll stay in as long as they'll have me,” said Sgt. Rodrick Schmidt, 27, an eight-year veteran who's trucked for the Army here and abroad.

His father-in-law drives for a NASCAR racing team and is ready to retire, and wants Schmidt to come out and take over the job, but it's not likely. He likes soldiering – and there's a lot of that at Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne – and the driving part is easy, compared to the grind you're used to.

Schmidt and his colleagues in a Fort Campbell-based outfit drive the M915A4, a variant on the basic Freightliner platform. It's a glider kit consisting of a new frame, cab, hood and steer axle, with Army-provided engine and rear bogie taken from older trucks. While the GIs like the Freightliners, they wouldn't be GIs unless they had some gripes.


For this article I also went to Portland, Ore., where Freightliner assembles the all-new A3. Like the A4, the A3 is built to hold up under moderate off-road conditions. It is also made to be lifted aboard a ship, and the lifting points alone add several hundred pounds to the basic chassis. At 19,040 pounds, it's no lightweight, but durability is more important.

The A3 has a familiar engine: the 12.7-liter Detroit Series 60, rated at 430 hp. It runs through an Allison six-speed automatic transmission. That, plus power steering, makes the tractor a breeze to drive. Axles are by Meritor, and the 40,000-pound rears ride on a Freightliner TufTrac rod-and-spring suspension. This suspension is made primarily for construction trucks, but on/off-road travel is what it's for, and that's what this tractor must be capable of.

The Army calls this a “linehaul” tractor. It's a 6x4, like you probably drive, but has no sleeper because the hauling is more local and regional in nature. Any long hauls out of Fort Campbell are limited to 350 miles a day, said Capt. Christine Pacheco, commander of the 594th Transportation Co., which operates 62 Freightliners. GI drivers spend nights on cots in armories or, occasionally, in budget motels.

The daycab tractors have provisions for securing rifles and personal gear. Larry Howard, a retired Army warrant officer and now a military vehicles program manager for Freightliner, said soldier-drivers often stow their CB radios and AM-FM-cassette (and maybe CD) players in nicely crafted wood boxes placed on the floor between the seats.

GIs in the 594th TC strap their CBs to the dashboard, like their civilian counterparts do. Freightliner wires the cabs for CB and other hookups.

A-bags (what we used to call duffel bags) containing clothing and other personal items are stowed in a large toolbox behind the cab, Howard explained. A 42-inch SleeperCab could provide space for this stuff and a lot more, and he is trying to sell the idea to the Army's Tank-Automotive & Armaments Command (TACOM), which specs out and buys the trucks.

“But don't say 'sleeper',” Howard said. “I call it a 'work space',” with a desk for paperwork, space for radios and other electronics devices, and cabinets for personal gear. He doesn't know if TACOM will bite on it.


The M915A3 tractor was one of three fightin' Freightliners he had lined up for my drive. There was also a 6x6 M916A3 lowboy tractor and a 6x6 M917A2 dump truck (like the one on our cover). With front-driving axles and Dana central tire inflation systems (CTIS), the two 6-bys are severe-duty chassis much more capable off-road. Military engineers use them to haul heavy machinery, and to build and repair roads.

The linehaul tractor was hitched to a 45-foot flatbed trailer that toted a heavy load of concrete blocks. Howard estimated our gross weight at close to 80,000 pounds, but the powerful Detroit-Allison setup made quick and easy work of it. You can try to play around with the Allison, but the best way to drive it is to punch D (for drive) and get on the gas. It almost always shifts when you would.

One exception was climbing the hill while leaving the Swan Island area of Portland. Moving away from a traffic light, the Allison had upshifted quickly into 3rd gear, and then the hill steepened and the Detroit lugged down to 1,300 and began feeling doggy.

I punched the down arrow on the keypad selector, but nothing happened until the electronic controls decided, after a few seconds, that it was time for a downshift (to paraphrase an old saying, “there's a right way, a wrong way, an Army way and an electronic way”). Then revs spooled up, and we recovered.

On softer grades and level ground, the transmission behaved fine. Howard said its “adaptive” electronics observe how I drive, as well as what the load and road seem to be, and gradually adapts its shifting to these conditions. I couldn't tell if it did or didn't, but shifting seemed to get smoother as the trip wore on.

We left the city by way of Marine Drive along the Columbia River, passing the airport and eventually joining up with Interstate 84 eastbound. This leads into the scenic Columbia Gorge, which we followed as far as Multnomah Falls, about 35 miles east of Portland. There's a rest area there where I shot some photos, and a turnaround which sent us back west, into town and down to our Swan Island starting point.

Some observations: This tractor's interior is definitely no-frills, with plain paneling on the doors and the low-budget fake wood trim on the dash. But it's a lot more comfortable than any other military truck I've been in. It's got a complete set of HVAC controls that work just like on any civvie FLD. Yes, there's even – gasp! – air conditioning that blows really cold air. What's this Army coming to?

Light switches are consolidated in a military-issue oval box placed on the right wing panel. A rotary switch controls service lights and blackout lights – small, squinty fixtures that illuminate the road only a few feet ahead, enough to grope forward but not enough to be seen by bad guys in the hills or airplanes ... you hope. There's also an “off” position if you need to go stealthily through the night, or just shut things down. Design of this box precedes the Vietnam War.

Rather new back then were air-ride seats. The Bostroms in this tractor were vinyl-covered but had side cushioning for one's thighs. The seats absorbed most of the vibes let through by the construction-truck suspension, but there really weren't many. TufTrac rides very well, even though its main attributes, according to Howard, are vertical wheel travel – great for climbing over obstacles on road or trail – and no maintenance.

Speaking of maintenance, there's not much of it for the driver. Think of the pre-trip inspection items on your civvie rig, and you're pretty much good to go with an M915A3.

For the 6x6 tractor and dump truck there's more to know and look at. One of my old favorites for the air system – “drain tanks daily” – is not needed, because a modern air dryer and water-spitter valve keep the system clean and arid.

Upon our return we broke for an early lunch. (“I've got to eat,” Howard said. “It's something I picked up in the Army.”) Then he showed me around the dump truck – a serious off-road worker, with its bulky front-driving axle and high-standing chassis – about 9 inches higher than the road tractor. I needed the grab handle to pull myself onto the first step, but realized that soldiers are young and in shape and probably just jump in.

The seats are also Bostroms, but have more thigh support and an adjustable lumbar support. The lumbar thing adjusts with a manual knob, and would be nice to have if you've been out wielding a shovel or pickaxe, or just have to hang on as this plump dumper bounds over the boonies of Camp Swampy or wherever its Army Engineer driver finds himself or herself.

Like the tractor, both 6x6s have Detroit 430s and Allison automatics. But the 6-bys also have a shift-on-the-fly single-speed transfer case, which sends power to the front axle, and the Allisons are 7-speeds with an extra-low 1st. You engage this by pushing the down arrow until the red indicator light drops from 7 to 1.

In 1st, the truck will go a few miles an hour, and the tranny will not upshift until you say so, by punching the up arrow. Easy on the foot feed, as there'll be a lurch upon the powershift to 2nd. Or you can hit D and be on your way. Low worked only in the tractor; in the truck it could not be engaged, and we instead got a false neutral. There were one or two other glitches in the dumper, and Howard said he'd write them up for fixing before shipping it off for duty.

The Michelin skins are plumbed for the central tire inflation system (CTIS), whose push-button controls, along with a lever for the dump box and controls for a special materials-handling gate, are on a console between the seats.

I told Howard that concrete mixer fleets in Florida are buying 6x4s with CTIS instead of hard-tire 6x6s. “'They'll go where 6x6s won't – two drivers told me that,” I related to Howard, “but I managed to get one stuck.”

We chuckled over that, and within 45 minutes I had this truck stuck. It wouldn't climb a shallow sand dune that we found along Marine Drive, overlooking the river. The sand was soft and our tires were hard, and even with the steer axle engaged the wheels spun almost uselessly. Howard hit the CTIS's Off-Road button and air began bleeding out of the tires, but this takes several minutes and oh my gawd, they're shooting at us....

Nah. A good driver will anticipate this kind of obstacle and punch the correct button several minutes before leaving the pavement, he explained. Slowly the tires got softer, and we were able to make some headway. But I had made my point: Any buffoon can get anything stuck. Then I punched the Allison into Reverse and backed the truck out to the road. CTIS gradually aired up the tires as we headed back toward the city.

The dumper's ride was a bit jouncy, but still pretty good, considering that the steel dump box was empty and the TufTrac suspension was a 52,000-pounder, with four hefty parabolic springs rather than the two in the road tractor's suspension. You'd think the truck would bang its way down the road, but not so. Howard said it rides just about the same when loaded.

Back on Swan Island, we switched to the M916A3 tractor. Alas, no trailer within shooting distance had a big enough kingpin to fit the tractor's extra heavy-duty fifth wheel. It's made for a 3.5-inch kingpin, he said, vs. the standard 2-inch kingpin you're used to. So we instead bobtailed around nearby streets. The tractor was surprisingly nimble, the ride was amazingly smooth and with no load, the 430 Detroit propelled us down the streets with authority.

“At Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. (a major Army engineering post), I've driven this through some tough stuff,” Howard related, “pulling a gooseneck with a D7 dozer on it, and that's a combination weight of 122,000 pounds.

“We took it up one 9%-plus slope – we engaged the front axle and hit the CTIS before we got there – and it walked right up. The people there said, 'Well, nothing's ever made it all the way up on the first try before',” he said.

So your taxpayer dollars are buying a trio of rather capable rigs. The 6x6 dumper and tractor are rather specialized, though still based on a basic civilian design. The 6x4 linehaul tractor is both different and very similar to what you and your trucker colleagues have driven and proved out in billions of miles of commercial service over countless days and nights on the road.

For that you ought to stand proud and tall, when you get out of the seat, of course.


2002 Freightliner FLD120, conventional daycab, 120-inch BBC, w/ HVAC and tilt-telescoping steering column

Detroit Diesel Series 60, 12.7 liters (776 cubic inches), 430 hp/1,450 lb-ft.

Allison HD4560P, six-speed double-overdrive

Front Axle
12,000-lb. Meritor FF961 on taperleafs

Rear Axles
40,000-lb. Meritor RT40-145, with locking differentials and 4.88 ratio, on Freightliner TufTrac rod-and-parabolic leaf suspension

162 inches

Meritor Q-Plus w/ Meritor Wabco ABS

Tires & Wheels
Michelin XAE 11R22.5 on Accuride hub-piloted steel discs

Fifth Wheel
Holland FW33 2-way oscillating, low-lube, on slider mount

Fuel Capacity
100 gallons

Special Equipment & Capabilities
Daytime running lights, LED marker and taillights, 9-in. ground clearance, 20-in. water fording capability

Web Information
RoadKing Homepage


Please sign in or sign up to post a comment.  Or sign in with Facebook.