News: Soldier manages workload as mechanic and crew chief during wildfires
Story by Spc. Nadine White
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It was a cool morning on Sept. 6, 2013, the sun rose in a cloudless sky over Mather Army Air Flight Facility near Sacramento, Calif. There was a steady, calm and quiet pace amongst the maintenance crews both out on the flight line and in the hangar.
The aviation mechanics of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB) were diligently working on repairs and maintenance of five UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, that only days before had flown over one of the largest wildfires in California’s history.
The Rim Fire that burned more than 250,000 acres near Yosemite National Forest from August into September, called into action the aerial firefighting capabilities of the California National Guard.
“We’re finally getting back into the normal swing of things,” said Sgt. David Calderon, a mechanic and crew chief from Fox Company, 2-135th GSAB.
Sgt. Calderon felt the heat from wildfire season in his increased responsibilities and split-roles during the weeks prior. He worked around-the-clock shifts, for two-week stretches at a time.
“During the fire season, it gets pretty crazy. Normally I’m a mechanic, but during the fires I was a crew chief,” Calderon said. “So everything I usually work on, organize, worry about, I wasn’t. I’d be gone for eight days flying on the fire, and then I’d come back and work 12-hour days maintaining the aircraft.”
Born, raised, and currently living in the greater Sacramento area, Calderon joined the California National Guard in July 2005 as an aviation mechanic and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.
“I was looking for a better life, I wanted discipline and structure; direction,” Calderon said, “I figured the military might take me somewhere better than I was.”
After completing Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Eustis, Va., David returned to his unit as a traditional reservist and continued working his civilian construction job. He then deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 as an aviation mechanic with Company C, 1-168th GSAB. Upon returning and realizing he enjoyed the active duty lifestyle, he applied for a full-time technician position with Fox Company: there, he became a crew chief.
“He’s a hard worker, and he genuinely loves his job,” said Spc. Matthew Hammond, a mechanic with Company F, 2-135th GSAB. “He knows everything, from flight operations to maintenance repairs.”
Juggling the workload of both a mechanic and crew chief during wildfire season is no easy task. The long hours and less than optimal conditions could exhaust even the most enthusiastic of soldiers, but Sgt. Calderon embraced the high priority missions.
“I love it. You fly on incredible flights,” Calderon said. “You’re making a difference in peoples’ lives.”
While on the firefighting missions, Calderon was the crew chief on both firefighting flights, as well as stand-by medical evacuation flights. His responsibilities included controlling, filling, repairing, and managing water drops of the bright orange Bambi Buckets attached to the Black Hawks. After his flight missions were over, Calderon would return with the aircraft to Mather AAFF, and begin his maintenance duties with his crew on the ground.
“I have a different perspective than some crew chiefs. I have a greater appreciation for mechanics, because I know how much hard work goes into making our aircraft flyable,” he said. “The pilots, the flight crews, they can’t fly without us, the mechanics.”
With the fire season slowing down, Calderon is not flying as much, but is focusing more on repairing the aircraft for other missions: search and rescue operations are Fox Company’s priority mission year-round. As a single father of three, he intends on eventually attending college with his enlistment benefits, expressing a motivation for a higher education and self-improvement.
Calderon plans to continue his service and ultimately retire from the National Guard.
“I have a fun job,” he said. “I’m definitely going to stay. I enjoy it way too much not to.”