Army, Air Force maintainers keep helicopters flying

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Many people might not think of the Air Force if they look out onto the rows of helicopters that stretch across the ramps of Kandahar Airfield. Most of them belong to the U.S. Army.

A handful, however, belong to the helicopter crew chiefs of the 451st Expeditionary Air Maintenance Squadron. Many of the HH-60G Pave Hawks, the same helicopters that rescued victims from Hurricane Gustav in 2008, now pull people from disaster in Afghanistan, said 1st Lt. James Guthrie, 55th Expeditionary Helicopter Maintenance Unit officer in charge.

Many of the helicopters in the Air Force are used for search and recovery missions, or in the case of those at Kandahar Airfield, personnel recovery.

Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Morabito, a sheet metal and avionics mechanic, mentioned that he sees much more extraordinary wear and tear on Air Force helicopters because there aren't as many of them. More work is demanded of each aircraft.

Inevitably, when a helicopter develops issues beyond what the Air Force maintainers can fix at the airfield, it must be fixed at depot, a stage of maintenance where the aircraft can be pulled apart for heavy maintenance, beams cut out and welded back together. If the helicopter is flown back to the United States it may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several months which would handicap squadron personnel as they work with fewer helicopters. Instead, due to an excellent working relationship, Airmen simply move it across the street.

"They do helicopter repair. Deep, depot-level fixes," said Lieutenant Guthrie as he described the Army's Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot, or AVCRAD, a large clamshell tent sitting just off the helicopter ramp.

The most common problem is a crack in what the maintainers refer to as the 308 beam, which stretches over the roof of the helicopter and bears the brunt of the 20,000 pounds the HH-60 often carries. A severe enough crack could ground the aircraft and engineers would have the option of authorizing a one-time flight to repair.

The Air Force maintainers' relationship with the Army's AVCRAD troops at Kandahar Airfield dates back to 2006, although it evolved as different groups of deployers trickled through. Master Sgt. Douglas Roser, the production superintendent, listed five 308 beam repairs since late 2010, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars saved.

"It's a more ideal solution," Lieutenant Guthrie said. "They sat down and did the math for us."

He and the superintendents recalled an estimate of $8,000 per 308 beam repair.  Each one took about two weeks to twenty days to complete. Their relationship with the Army maintainers across the street has made the repair process much more efficient.

"And when we have a cook out, we'll invite them over," Sergeant Morabito said about the friendship the Army and Air Force crew chiefs share. "We're all in this together.  We have a good working relationship."

And the faster the aircraft are repaired, the sooner they can get back to the pararescue team to help to save lives and fly people to the hospital at Kandahar Airfield.

"What the guys do here, rescue crew chiefs, they have a whole different set of stressors," said Lieutenant Guthrie, describing how the HH-60 maintainers work differently.

The nature of the pararescue helicopters demand that they be ready to fly at any time, prepared to takeoff within fifteen minutes. The maintainers may have to drop what they are doing at a moment's notice to go the helicopter before it launches.

The U.S. Army helicopters may have a different mission from the helicopters across the street, but the airframes are similar enough that they can pool resources to keep them flying.

"The only way we'll be successful is if we work together," said Chief Warrant Officer Four Lisa Niner, the AVCRAD production control officer.