A character model may join a war machine in the same way as he might join a unit of troops. Note however, that war machines never include their own Champions - only units of troops are able to have Champions. The war machine benefits from the associated character's Leadership value in the same way that a unit of troops would.
In the case of war machines, the character must be positioned within 1" of a specific machine for the purpose of allocating damage from shooting hits. However, only crew can operate a machine, a character cannot.
Characters do not actually become crew when may join a war machine and are never hurt should the machine malfunction. They are sensible or experienced enough to keep sufficient distance between themselves and the dangerous mechanism to be safe.