FORT HOOD, Texas – He thought his buddy had just slipped and fallen, but when he got up, the blood began to flow. That’s when he knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary flight.
For Sgt. Matthew Arambula, a routine equipment drop in 2010 to Forward Operating Base Able Main, Afghanistan, will be forever etched in his memory.
This was one of his very first flights. As a crew chief, it’s a hazard that comes with the territory, he said.
“Upon unloading the equipment, we started taking fire,” said Arambula, a Belton, Texas, native. “One of the crew members on the other side of the aircraft was hit. Our routine mission that day ended up turning into a casualty evacuation to save our wounded battle buddy.”
Arambula, a UH-60 helicopter repairer with Company B, 3rd Attack Helicopter Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, is a crew chief who keep aircraft fit to fly - before, during and after flight.
Crew chiefs are charged with ensuring the aircraft they fly on is structurally sound, properly inspected and at all times maintained, as they are the first line of defense for detecting a user-level maintenance failure.
During flight, crew chiefs are responsible for face-to-face contact with passengers and cargo to ensure safe arrival at their destination.
Their workday begins well before the aircraft is unchained, said the soft-spoken Arambula.
“If I’m on a flight that day, I come in and immediately scrub the log book to ensure there’s nothing preventing it from flying,” said Arambula. “If it has deficiencies, I immediately make sure the bird gets the proper maintenance it needs before anyone steps foot on it.”
After the log book is reviewed, crew chiefs perform a pre-flight check to validate the aircraft as fully mission capable, followed by a thorough preventative maintenance daily inspection after flight to ensure the helicopter is safe for future crewmembers.
Arambula initially only performed maintenance on aircraft for the first three years of his career, but during his deployment to Afghanistan, he was moved to a flight company and given his first chance to perform his duties at more than 4,000 feet in the air.
However, this was not without hesitation, he said.
“I’m afraid of heights,” said Arambula. “When my first flight company took me in the air, I knew right then that I’d be good. When I’m flying in an aircraft, I’m not scared at all.”
The transition from solely maintaining aircraft to also flying was a major change for him. One that gave him a much keener eye when performing maintenance, he said.
“It was a pretty big transition from turning wrenches all day at the FOB [Forward Operating Base],” said Arambula. “I still enjoy flying more than strictly maintaining. When you’re flying four times a week and working more than 12 hours a day during a deployment, it makes you focus a lot more on the ground while working on the aircraft.”
Now a veteran crew chief, Arambula hopes to progress by being trained as a company flight instructor, much like fellow Spearhead crew chief Staff Sgt. Joel Redman did before him.
Redman, the 3rd AHB standardization instructor with Headquarters and Headquarter Company, began his career as a UH-60 helicopter repairer in 2003, and was sent to C Company when it stood up in August 2006.
Between deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan within six years with the battalion, Redman was sent to Fort Rucker, Ala., to attend the UH-60 Aircraft Crewmember Standardization Instructor course.
Since August, he has served as the battalion SI and has managed the battalion’s air crew training program; a task about which Redman said he has his work cut out for him.
“I manage the crew chief flight aspect for the commander,” said the Page, Ariz. native. “I ensure crew chiefs receive the proper training and annual evaluations required of them, and I help facilitate the flight schedule. I train a lot of new crew chiefs and give them their check ride.”
With these duties and inherent responsibilities, there come many challenges, he said.
“Time management becomes paramount,” Redman said. “You have to fit in time for physical training and studying on your own to ensure you maintain a certain academic knowledge of maintaining, regulations, flight rules, tactical aircraft systems, aeromedical knowledge, and how to utilize the M-240H machine gun as a door gunner.”
Faced with these daily challenges, Redman no longer turns wrenches on a day-to-day basis like he did in the beginning of his military career.
Despite this, he keeps with him the sense of pride he’s had all along as a crew chief, he said.
“I remember the first phase I did for 30 days in Korea as a crew chief,” Redman recalled. “I had such a strong sense of accomplishment when I sat on a grassy field and watched the bird I had been taking apart for the past month take off. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Now often away from his toolbox, he feels a completely different, yet equally fulfilling, sense of pride when training newcomers to the “Spearhead” battalion.
“There’s a feeling I love, and you can see it in every crew chief’s’ eyes, when everything comes together and clicks,” said Redman. “There’s a fire hose blast of information crew chiefs have to remember when they start flying. It’s a great feeling when I just trained someone, and I hear back from the pilot saying he’s a good crew chief.”