Maintainers' goal: come back alive -- every time
Senior Airman Robin Lu, maintainer assigned to the 33rd Expeditionary Helicopter Maintenance Unit, marshals a U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter prior to take-off at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 25, 2012. Lu, a resident of Irvine, Calif., serves on a team of helicopter maintainers who enable Bagram’s Combat Search and Rescue capability in support of NATO and Afghan security forces. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Raymond Geoffroy)
by Tech. Sgt. Vernon Cunningham
455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
5/30/2012 - BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- "Nothing makes me happier than when I see these blades spin and the helicopter take off," said Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Kopplin, 33rd Expeditionary Helicopter Maintenance Unit lead flying helicopter crew chief. "Knowing I worked on it. Knowing that Airmen that I lead have worked on it. Knowing that we have done everything that we were supposed to do, by the book, 100 percent. When an aircraft takes off and comes back ... it's a great feeling every time."
Kopplin and the dedicated maintainers of the 33rd EHMU's primary mission is to ensure that Bagram's fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters are safe, air worthy, and combat ready so their airs crew and pararescuemen can go out and perform their rescue missions in support of NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
For the Bagram Pave Hawk maintainers, the job boils down to a single task.
"On a day-to-day basis, I get aircraft ready to fly," said Senior Airman Hunter Rains, 33rd EHMU rescue crew chief.
"The Pave Hawk is a vessel to take the PJs where they need to be and for the back enders (gunners) to be able to protect those PJs so they are able to get around," said Rains. "Where we come into play is that we get these helicopters ready on a daily basis and make sure the helicopter operates properly."
The helicopter maintainers work a non-stop alert schedule to maintain high mission-capable ratings. They are ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
1st Lt. Pelenato Tagoai, 33 EHMU officer in charge, said one of the biggest benefits of doing rescue helicopter maintenance at Bagram is the opportunity to work alongside U.S. Army and South Korean helicopter maintenance teams.
"Being able to share resources, knowledge and capabilities has increased the overall health of our helicopter units here at Bagram," said Tagoai.
"Without them, there is no mission," said Lt. Col. David R. St. Onge, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron commander. "Our team is phenomenal. Without a helicopter, we have no mission. We could have the best pilots, the best back enders, the best guardian angels or pararescuemen ... but, if there is no helicopter to fly then we would be driving around in trucks."
The colonel's sentiments were echoed by the very people who rely on Bagram's rescue helicopters.
"I have to have faith in the maintenance crew," said Staff Sgt. Lucas Gough, 83rd ERQS pararescueman. "We have the best maintenance crew out there for this mission because they are our lifeline. We take off with these HH-60s and if there are any issues in flight, you've got anywhere from six to seven souls on board. These guys have never let us down, and it means a lot."
When the Pave Hawk maintainers get an alert call, they drop everything they are doing and sprint as fast as possible to the flightline to get their aircraft prepared to fly.
"We are pulling plugs, covers, tie-down straps, and cranking APUs so that all our operators and PJ's have to do is jump in the aircraft and set off to go rescue somebody," said Tagoai.
Senior Master Sgt. Timothy Debeaux, 33 EHMU superintendent, has worked as a helicopter crew chief for 20 years, serving 11 years as an HH-60 crew chief. He said the HH-60 maintainers' actions during a scramble are all about saving lives.
"The mindset during a scramble is to not be last," said Debeaux. "The thought is if you get there earlier then maybe you will give the PJ's that extra second to go rescue someone.
"PJ's have this thing they call 'The Golden Hour'," said Debeaux. "The golden hour is the optimal response time from injury to medical treatment. If we take too long to launch an aircraft then that hour is cut down. If we don't get up in a hurry then it could be too late to get that save."
Gough agreed that the rescue mission relies on all the elements coming together quickly.
"Time is life," he said. "It is absolutely critical for us to get off the ground as soon as possible to get to whoever might be wounded out there on the battlefield. We really rely on these maintainers to always be efficient in what they are doing. They always get out there fast and allow us to get off the ground and into the battlefield where we are able to bring guys back."
The maintainers also recognize and respect the symbiotic relationship among the rescue units.
"If we can give the PJ the opportunity to reach that injured person while he is still alive, there is a great chance that he'll live," said Rains.
It takes a special kind of person to work as a Pave Hawk maintainer.
"The teams we bring out here to support the war fighters are those who are the most qualified, trained and experienced ... but, also those who can perform under extreme pressure," said Tagoai. "They have the confidence and courage in the face of danger and adversity to be able to perform their duties effectively in a combat environment.
"It's like running a marathon, but you're doing a sprint without being able to trip or fall down ... ever," said Rains. "If anything ever happens to my helicopter and there is some guy out there, then it's on me. I have to get it right or fix what's wrong."
Rains went on to note that the rescue mission which he is supporting strengthens coalition forces by denying insurgents the opportunity to take servicemembers permanently out of the fight.
St. Onge said everybody has a part to play in combat rescue, to include all DoD services and coalition forces.
"Saving lives is the bottom line for combat," he said. "We give those soldiers the peace of mind to know that if you do get injured, someone is coming to get you and they are going to get there fast."
The maintainers' speed and skill have truly paid off.
They've maintained nearly perfect Pave Hawk mission readiness ratings, giving the PJ's the wings with which they have saved more than 20 lives and transported more than 100 patients to medical centers this year alone.
"It is truly an honor and a privilege for me to lead and serve with some of the finest rescue maintainers in the world who exemplify commitment to duty, courage in the face of danger and adversity, and just a selfless dedication to serve," said Tagoai.
"They truly have answered their nation's call time and time again. They truly live up to their motto: These things we do ... that others may live."