Drivers Drive

By Michael W. Trott
June 11, 2019 

Anyone who has made a career in executive profession will remember their first major role or assignment. For me, it was Germany, 1988: I was an Air Force Security Specialist (assigned to Ramstein Air Base in 1986 and served there for six years) and had been selected to be trained as security driver behind the wheel of a three-ton, level B7 armored Mercedes Benz, which I then routinely had to drive at high speeds on the German autobahn.

In the back seat, my principal was a U.S. Air Force Brigadier General and 316th Air Division Commander, as well as the Kaiserslautern Community (KMC) commander located on Ramstein Air Base.

While my title was “security driver,” as a member of a Protective Service Operation, the mission encompassed far more than just being a driver. I was part of a team where our responsibilities included being aware of current threat intelligence, new attack methodologies, ensuring weapons, equipment, and vehicles were well maintained and conducting numerous route advances across Germany.

A major threat at that time was the highly-capable terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), which was the successor in radical leftist ideology to the Baader-Meinhof Gang that had their origins back in the ‘60s. The RAF had many successful attacks and assassinations behind them: Andreas von Mirbach, Hanns-Martin Slayer, and U.S. military servicemen, among others. One assassination attempt that was not successful, however, was on U.S. Army General Frederick Kroesen in Heidelberg. In 1981, he and his wife were hit in their armored vehicle by a rocket. Fortunately, they survived with only minor injuries.

USAFE Headquarters in Germany after the 1981 RAF car bomb attack on Ramstein Air Base.

USAFE Headquarters in Germany after the 1981 RAF car bomb attack on Ramstein Air Base.

It was known that the RAF had our principal in their sights as well. Our general served as the KMC commander, which was the largest concentration of U.S. Forces outside of the United States at that time, and his position represented all that the RAF loathed regarding the imperialist power of the U.S. and the West German government.

Just a few years earlier in 1981, the RAF had detonated a car bomb at the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) Headquarters, located on the airbase.

One of the RAF’s most notorious assassinations was of the high-profile German banker Alfred Herrhausen in late 1989. Only minutes after departing his home in Bad Homberg, Germany and while riding in the back seat of his armored vehicle with his multi-car protective detail, a sophisticated roadside bomb was detonated, which contained approximately 22 pounds of explosives.

This bomb had been strapped like a small backpack on a child’s bicycle behind the seat. The bicycle had been seen at the same location for several days and was never regarded with any suspicion. A “road crew” appeared to be making repairs nearby, but they were in fact installing the photoelectric device in order to project an invisible beam across the road.

What was left of Herrhausen’s armored vehicle after the 1989 attack. (AP Images)

What was left of Herrhausen’s armored vehicle after the 1989 attack. (AP Images)

On that fateful day, the terrorists allowed the lead security car to pass the bicycle. When Herrhausen’s vehicle broke the beam, it detonated a five-pound copper plate directly into the back seat of his heavily-armored vehicle like a sniper’s bullet, launching that nearly three-ton vehicle 82 feet from impact. Herrhausen died from massive blood loss while still in the vehicle.

At that very moment, along with an Air Force OSI agent, we were with our principal (the general) approximately 20 miles away (and an hour from our secure base) near Darmstadt for an official meeting. When we heard of the attack, we couldn’t help but believe this was part of a larger orchestrated plan of assassination that could include our principal. Needless to say, it was a long ride home that day and for many months after when we were off base with the general. Conducting pre-route advances took on a new meaning and importance.

Back in 1988, before I assumed my new role as a security driver, I was sent back to the U.S. to attend advanced anti-terrorism defensive driving school at a training center in West Virginia, run by former U.S. Tier One military operators. Understanding the dynamics of a vehicle is important for any driver, but when you’re behind the wheel of an armored vehicle weighing nearly a ton more than most vehicles, those dynamics become even more critical to understand – especially while driving at high speeds and conducting evasive maneuvers.

Many fine international driving schools (including Vehicle Dynamics Institute, founded by Tony Scotti) have spent the last four decades teaching these important skills to police officers, federal agents, close protection professionals and security drivers. These advanced driving skills, along with understanding different international vehicle attack methodologies (and just safe driving techniques) have probably saved more lives than self-defense and the use of weapons combined.

Me on the left and Kevin (my backup driver) standing in front of the recently torn down portions of the Berlin Wall. We put a lot of autobahn miles on that armored Mercedes.

Me on the left and Kevin (my backup driver) standing in front of the recently torn down portions of the Berlin Wall. We put a lot of autobahn miles on that armored Mercedes.

Technology is rapidly changing the way we live and operate. We can see how it is changing vehicles as well. For anyone assigned to a protective mission or detail, especially if one of your primary roles is as a driver, you should consider getting on the driving track with an instructor just as much, if not more, than you go the shooting range or dōjō. You may think driving every day makes you a good driver, but it often doesn’t. Similar to shooting, self-defense or emergency medical skills, in the event you need to use advanced driving skills to avoid an accident or an attack, if you haven’t practiced or rehearsed these skills recently, there is a greater chance when you need them the most, they won’t be there for you.

At these advanced driving schools, drivers are given a detailed understanding of a variety of skills (e.g., the differences between ABS braking and “threshold braking,” and what an “apex” is and why it’s important to hit it at the right spot). They are taught how to “dump” speed and when improper weight transference can push a vehicle into a skid or worse. They teach the Hollywood stuff of “J” turns and bootlegs, which have their applications in some types of emergencies, along with high-speed reverse driving and, if needed, how to conduct a proper “PIT” maneuver or the right place to ram a vehicle that is trying to block your escape and many other important skills and lessons.

Understanding and perfecting these driving maneuvers are all important skills to add to your driver tool box with this advanced training. At a minimum, your skills might simply help you avoid an accident without losing control or throwing your principal around in the back seat. However, you will also need to work on training your principal to always wear their seatbelts too, even in the back seats.

VDI students running evasive driving scenarios.

VDI students running evasive driving scenarios.

But skilled driving is only half of the mission. One must also know where they are going and what hazards exist between points A, B and maybe C and D. Understanding a route should include: timing, potential choke points and attack sites, weather and road conditions, road construction, detours and other hazards, safe locations and hospitals along the route, the general condition of the route as well as alternate routes.

Technology has allowed us to conduct much of our advance before leaving our office on our smart phones, but a professional security driver will never substitute an actual route advance for a virtual route advance. This practice can be costly and, in my opinion, is just plain lazy. A virtual advance can provide a great bird’s eye view and give you some useful information according to the last satellite version you’re using, but it will never replace current road condition knowledge, the real drive time, and the hazards along the route you might want to avoid.

As a primary security driver, I have always advanced any routes, sometimes many times over and in different vehicles, especially if I haven’t driven them before or recently. Not taking this role seriously as a driver is like having a weapon without the ammo.

As a professional driver for a principal or protective detail, some drivers make the critical mistake that their mission is over once they have arrived at a venue. Unless that venue is known and secure, your mission isn’t over and your assignment is to stay with the vehicle and be prepared to depart immediately. In some cases you might be required to move to a new location around the venue to meet your team escorting or exfiltrating your principal in an emergency situation.

When I became a Special Agent with the CIA and was assigned to the CIA Director’s protective detail, I never shied away from getting behind the wheel as a driver. When a “limo” driver (with the principal) and the follow car driver have rehearsed their movements, the ride becomes a well-choreographed dance where the follow car driver anticipates the limo driver’s moves. It may take only a subtle blinker and/or a light brake tap for the follow car to easily block lanes for lane changes and prepare for other supportive movements to protect the limo.

These relationships between limo and follow car could feel like a fighter pilot with his or her wingman in a dogfight.

Security drivers are responsible for the lives of their principals and the other members of the protective team. Attention to detail, proper mindset, focus, intuition and muscle memory all come into play as they direct and maneuver a two-ton (or more) “weapon” on streets, highways and navigate sometimes precarious situations within inches of oncoming metal and matching speeds. They need to be the very best at what they do, just like a shooter behind the trigger, a doctor/medic providing emergency medicine or a surveillance specialist identifying a threat.

In the close protection profession, when we consider all of the necessary abilities and stressful demands on a professional driver, we often sum it up by simply saying, “Drivers Drive.”

Drive safe,