News: Flying high begins with mechanics on the ground
Story by Gigail Cureton
FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Noisy fans push hot air around the aircraft hangar but most of the Soldiers don't seem to notice the noise or the heat. Sweat dampens foreheads and moistens uniform T-shirts but the hands attached to tools large and small keep working on a helicopter older than many of the mechanics charged with making it flight worthy.
Every nut, bolt, hose, switch, filter, bulb of the 35-year-old UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter is being checked, fixed, replaced if needed, and rechecked. It is part of a maintenance cycle that occurs every 360 flight hours.
"The 360-hour phase maintenance inspection requires a team of knowledgeable and detail-oriented mechanics, technical inspectors, supply personnel, production control, and shop supervisors in order to complete the more than 500 tasks required to return an aircraft back to service,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rohn LeGore, Army Aviation Support Facility maintenance officer.
Getting the twin-engine helicopter back in service begins with Staff Sgt. Ed Wrubluski, the team leader responsible for everything taking place. His signature, along with that of the Quality Control Inspector, is required before the aircraft can leave the hangar and return to flight status.
“I am definitely a taskmaster. It’s a requirement for the job,” Wrubluski said with a smile. “With this level of maintenance you have to be well-organized and focused and even then there is always one more thing to consider, one more thing that can turn a go into a no-go quickly.”
Wrubluski watchful eyes moved from his computer database monitoring every item used to fix the aircraft to one of the more junior Soldiers removing glue from door seals.
“We have different levels of experience working on this aircraft,” he said. “Some of the team is very new to aviation or the unit, and then I have Soldiers who are ‘fixtures’ here because they have been at it so long.”
Staff Sgt. Richard Sellner is one of those ‘fixtures’. The helicopter repairer started working on aircraft in 1983 while serving in the Navy. “I’m a tinkerer. I love to fix things so I consider working on aircraft one of the greatest challenges,” Sellner said.
A Soldier a couple of decades Sellner’s junior agrees. “From the smallest screw to the largest rotor blade, there is a lot of work that goes into making this aircraft work,” said Spc. Kevin Snyder-Diffin, one of the unit’s newest members who has active duty and combat aviation experience. “The biggest thing is to follow the book [maintenance manuals] and ask someone for assistance if you don’t understand something.”
What it takes to keep helos flying
According to LeGore, there are three maintenance levels: field, sustainment, and depot level maintenance. Field level is conducted at Fort Belvoir’s Army Aviation Support Facility by full-time technicians assigned to the District of Columbia National Guard. Sustainment maintenance requiring extensive maintenance or modifications is handled by the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) in Groton, Conn. Depot level maintenance is performed in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Basic preventative maintenance daily checks take place daily when the helicopter flies or every seven days the helicopter is not flying. Generally it takes four hours of maintenance for every hour of flying to keep aircraft operational.
The preventative maintenance service checks are required every 40 flight hours. There are other hourly and calendar-driven maintenance and inspection tasks, like battery checks, 30-day engine wash programs, 90-day corrosion checks, and a 120-hour inspection.
Then there’s the phase maintenance inspection — a comprehensive field maintenance check accomplished every 360 flight hours.
“Normally this inspection can take less than two months with a team of five mechanics,” explained LeGore. The team at AASF started working on the maintenance project in May.
“It’s taken us longer because we had to work around annual training schedules and limited on-site support from the 1109th TASMG to assist our full-time technicians.”
The phase maintenance inspection (PMI) has two levels: PMI 1 is primarily focused on common tasks involving very little component replacement, while PMI 2 addresses the aircraft systems and components.
Two months into the project, the mechanics identified major repairs beyond normal PMI 1.
“We had to replace the main driveshaft, which required us to remove the engine,” said LeGore. In addition, the team replaced a leaking fuel bladder, replaced the main flight control mixing unit, and installed a new wireless headset system.
The Army’s workhorse returns to DC Guard
Approximately 3,000 Black Hawks are in use worldwide; primarily for military tactical support, troop transport, electronic warfare, combat support and aero medical evacuation. Since first entering service in 1979, the Black Hawk has supported U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the reassignment of the UH-60A to the District of Columbia National Guard from Korea in 2011, Capital Guardians mechanics dusted off the maintenance manuals and added Black Hawk maintenance to the list of aircraft they support including eight UH-72A Lakota and a C-26 Metroliner. This is only the second time the Soldiers have conducted the 360-hour maintenance on the Black Hawks.
Prior to 2011, it had been seven years since the last Black Hawk helicopter was serviced by the D.C. National Guard. Today, Capital Guardians have three to support a new unit, Detachment 1, Company C, 1/126th Aviation Battalion, expected to be activated in October.
“It’s taking us months to check and test everything on this aircraft,” said Sellner. “But when we are done, I’ll be ready to take it on a flight.”
According to Wrubluski, the maintenance flight tests are the ultimate demonstration of pride in the mechanics work. “We spend a lot of time on these aircraft and some of the mechanics are also crew chiefs. The pilots depend on us to get it right and I expect that from my team.”
“Pilots don’t have the option of pulling over on a cloud and waiting for a tow plane when things go wrong,” added LeGore.