Helicopter rescue efforts rely on 'top notch' maintenance crew

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Heather Skinkle
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron pararescuemen wouldn't scramble anywhere to save a patient without the 55th Expeditionary Helicopter Maintenance Unit members.

The often deployed crew is small and the work load can be heavy, but the engine Airmen here keep the HH-60G Pave Hawk's engines running at peak performance. Despite the work, or perhaps because of it, the Airmen haven't lost focus on why they're here.

"I like this unit's mission," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Dierkes, 55th EHMU aerospace propulsion NCO in charge, deployed from the 763rd Maintenance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "I'm a small piece of the puzzle, but we save people's lives, whether it's soldiers or little kids."

Working that small piece of the puzzle involves twice the responsibility with less people. At home station, there are typically two separate shops, one for back shop maintenance and one on the flight line, said Dierkis. But here and at Nellis AFB, the engine Airmen handle both sets of responsibilities.

"I like doing both, getting flight line experience and troubleshooting problems, but I prefer the back shop," said Senior Airman Christopher Verzella, 55th EHMU aerospace propulsion journeyman, who has worked with Dierkis for the past six years. "I like taking everything apart and putting it back together."

They get lots of practice at putting things back together because of the desert's extreme conditions. In the U.S., an engine might last two years, but the life span in the area of responsibility can be severely shortened by sand and grit.

"We replaced two engines in seven days when we first arrived here," said Verzella. "It's unheard of that an engine would last only two months."

That's why spare engines and parts are kept in stock if an engine breaks unexpectedly. The unit keeps entire spare blades, engines, and tools on hand. If something isn't available it might be borrowed from the Army or even replicated, said Dierkis.

Parts aren't the only vital component to fixing an engine. Dierkis' expertise isn't in short supply and he offers it freely to help his fellow unit members so they better understand the HH-60 engines capabilities.

"He takes time to teach everyone and explain exactly what's going on and how important it is," said 1st Lt. Michael Losinski, 55th EHMU officer-in-charge. "He's a master of his trade."

When Dierkes first arrived he performed routine engine maintenance repairs but then U.S. Air Forces Central allowed Dierkes to complete an engine rebuild here. This saved the unit from a long turnaround time.

Despite knowing the engine inside and out, the two Airmen were still nervous as to the outcome of the engine's performance, they said.

"During the flight check I was on the edge of my seat hoping the engine would exceed performance expectations," said Verzella.

An engine functional check involves testing the maximum power output of the engine. Altitude, outside temperature, and other various data are taken into account to calculate the health of the engine.

"We need max power for the helicopter to get out of a landing zone," said Verzella.

The first engine rebuild and all subsequent ones have been successful. The Airmen didn't need to worry about the engine's performance since they brought their expertise to the fight.