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    Underway on deployment, in maintenance stateside and beyond: The life cycle of an HSM 73 helicopter aboard USS Ralph Johnson

    USS Ralph Johnson Conducts Strait of Hormuz Transit

    Photo By Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony Collier | 200813-N-FP334-1041 STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Aug. 13, 2020) A MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, from...... read more read more

    “Flight quarters, flight quarters, man your flight quarters stations” rings out over the general announcing system aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114).

    It’s a call that is well known aboard Ralph Johnson and throughout the Navy, as flight operations play a critical role in a deployed ship’s mission. While movies such as Top Gun and Midway give the pilots involved in naval aviation the spotlight, the aircraft themselves are just as important to the success of flight operations as the pilots and maintainers are. The glamorous role of the fixed wing aircraft are generally the subjects of many Hollywood wartime thrillers, but rotary aircraft play a vital role in many naval aviation missions. At sea, the helicopter is a versatile and invaluable part of an air wing and strike group.

    "Apart from their primary role as a submarine search and attack platform, having our own MH-60Rs on board expands our weapons engagement zone,” said Lt. Jonathan Sharbo, of Lakeville, Minn., Ralph Johnson’s safety and training officer. “Helicopters also allow for an airborne look at other vessels while keeping the ship out of potential engagement zones, and allows us to move people and parts over much greater distances much faster than if we did not have the helicopters embarked.”

    From the conception of an aircraft, to operational uses, all the way to an airframe’s final resting place, the Navy has plans in place to ensure that the aircraft are as capable, safe and reliable as possible through planned inspections and maintenance, even after thousands of hours of flight.

    Every type of Navy aircraft begins its lifecycle as a request from the Navy to a private sector manufacturer to build an aircraft that is suited for the demanding needs of flight operations underway.

    “All of them start off with a request for proposal,” said Lt. Cmdr. Pete Keaney, from Jacksonville, Fla., air boss and aviator for the “Battlecats” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 aboard Ralph Johnson, a part of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17. “The military will say what they need the helicopter to do. In the case of our MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters on board, they conduct anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare, all while remaining small enough to fit in our hangar. From there, private companies will start bidding for the contract, and then build the helicopters.”

    The Navy’s goal is to have a replacement aircraft ready before the older models are either worn out due to a high amount of flight hours or become obsolete as technology advances. In the case of the MH-60Rs aboard Ralph Johnson, they were built to replace the SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopters that once served the fleet.

    "When accepting new aircraft, we take certain steps to ensure it is safe to fly. These include a variety of inspections of the aircraft itself, as well as performing a full inventory and a thorough screening of all logbooks and past maintenance documentation,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Rullo, of Virginia Beach, Va., the Aviation Maintenance/Material Control Officer for HSM 73 embarked aboard the Carrier Strike Group 11 flagship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). “Lastly, we perform a Functional Check Flight to test out all the aircraft systems, check for abnormal vibrations and the performance of the engines.”

    While on deployment, the squadron will consistently maintain the aircraft to prolong service life and ensure it is safe to operate despite the high amount of physical stress the aircraft endures during operations.

    “When deployed, maintenance is divided into multiple two-hundred hour slots that are called phases,” said Keaney. Whether on shore or at sea, the squadron’s maintainers conduct extensive maintenance and inspections that delve into the aircraft’s many systems.

    “Phases are a major maintenance cycle for specific parts of an aircraft,” said Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Zachariah Hickman, from Dexter, Ore., also assigned to HSM 73.

    The parts of an aircraft are scheduled for different maintenance periodicities, occurring every 7, 14, 28 and 56 days, to ensure that they are routinely inspected and repaired if need be. These periodicities vary by hundreds of flight hours. The parts that require periodic maintenance determine what the aircraft’s maintainers will work on during a scheduled phase.

    “There’s all sorts of different things we might have to do during a phase,” said Hickman. “It can vary from breaking down, inspecting and cleaning the helicopter’s tail rotor all the way up to tearing apart the entire rotor head. We also work on the landing gear and different avionics components.”

    Hickman added that in rare cases, they may have to change out a motor if there is a problem with it or its periodic window happens to coincide with that phase.

    “It’s also a way for us to really dig deep into the aircraft and look at all the components with a fine tooth comb [and] see what might be wrong, what needs to be replaced, ” said Hickman.

    For aircraft components that the squadron does not have the capability to repair, the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department aboard Nimitz would have the capability to delve deeper into repairing the item or forwarding the part to an aircraft depot or the Original Equipment Manufacturer for repair.

    Deployments end eventually, but helicopters still require maintenance, especially after long months of flying at sea; so between deployments, helicopters will go to aircraft depots like Fleet Readiness Southwest, in San Diego for depot-level maintenance. At the depot, the aircraft can be literally 'stripped' to its airframe, fixing and repairing of the components, and completely rebuild the aircraft.

    “They open up the actual structure, do x-rays to see what’s worn down and they fix what they find there. It can be a six month process,” said Keaney.

    Keaney added that they can extend the service life of helicopters by rotating aircraft after depot-level maintenance from operational and deploying squadrons to training squadrons, or vice versa. Moving aircraft between squadrons helps the Navy to manage the entire fleet, ensuring aircraft don't reach life-limiting milestones from over use in some mission or training environments and allows for level-loading those airframes. This method ensures that the Navy keeps enough aircraft operational as long as possible.

    Finally, after multiple deployments and thousands of flight hours, aircraft reach the end of their initial expected life cycle, but if new airframes aren’t ready to replace the older aircraft, the Navy has ways to safely extend their service life.

    “Once a helicopter is near the end of its planned service life, you can put them through a service life extension program (SLEP),” said Keaney. “Basically, you send them off to the depot once again and they’ll do a refurbishing on the aircraft. From there, it’s good for thousands of hours again.”

    Should the Navy opt to not send an aircraft through the SLEP program, it has reached the end of its service life. They are then transferred to facilities such as Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, located near Tucson, Ariz., where they will spend the rest of their days in long term preservation.

    “Every single liquid is drained out, and all the electronic and mechanical parts are removed from the aircraft,” said Keaney. “The airframe is then placed in the industrial equivalent of bubble wrap, and it is then stored in the desert [environment] where there isn’t a lot of salt or humidity. This way we try to avoid corrosion, in case we ever need to bring the airframe out of retirement and call on its services once again.”

    Currently on deployment in the Arabian Gulf, the deserts of Arizona are a long way away from Keaney and the rest of HSM 73. While operating in U.S. 5th Fleet, or anywhere else, the Sailors aboard Ralph Johnson will continue working day and night to ensure their aircraft are well maintained and mission ready. They currently support Coalition Task Force Sentinel, the British-led operational arm of the International Maritime Security Construct which promotes maritime security and ensures freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce throughout key waterways in the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman.

    HSM 73, CVW 17 and Ralph Johnson are part of Carrier Strike Group 11 and are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean and three critical chokepoints to the free flow of global commerce.



    Date Taken: 08.31.2020
    Date Posted: 08.31.2020 07:51
    Story ID: 377114
    Location: ARABIAN GULF
    Hometown: DEXTER, OR, US
    Hometown: JACKSONVILLE, FL, US
    Hometown: LAKEVILLE, MN, US
    Hometown: TUCSON, AZ, US
    Hometown: VIRGINIA BEACH, VA, US

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