News: Kiowa crew chiefs maintain reconnaissance mission
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Lt. Col. Michael Morgan, commander of 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment (Task Force Saber) often says, "Your proximity to the target does not determine your importance to the mission." These words stand true in the case of TF Saber's OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter crew chiefs. Kiowa crew chiefs of TF Saber's Bravo and Charlie Troops may not fly in their airframes, like UH-60 Blackhawk or CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew chiefs, however; they do provide around-the-clock maintenance on their airframes keeping them in the fight.
Combined, both Troops maintain more than 20 Kiowa Warrior helicopters; averaging 120 flight hours from each Troop per month.
"On average, the ratio of maintenance hours to flight hours is 3-to-1," said Sgt. 1st Class Donald Adkins, production control noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) in TF Saber's Delta Troop. Delta Troop manages and tracks overall maintenance on TF Saber helicopters. Kiowa crew chiefs have completed well over 30,000 maintenance hours since their arrival late April.
Task Force Saber operated on the Afghan National Army Air Corps airfield in the early months of the deployment. This temporary space created many challenges, among them being the lack of equipment and resources.
"When these helicopters came off of the boat they were very behind on inspections," said Staff Sgt. Justin Francois, 1st Platoon Sergeant for Charlie Troop. "We had to make contacts with Dutch F-16 pilots for parts because our containers had not arrived yet."
Limited space created additional challenges for Kiowa maintenance. Each Kiowa had to be rolled from the pad into the maintenance hangar and then back out onto the pad after maintenance was complete.
"TF Saber managed to execute all assigned missions using a workspace/ramp that was approximately one third of the space necessary for these types of operations," said Capt. Jason Defoor, commander of TF Saber's Higher Headquarters Troop.
TF Saber transitioned from operations at ANAAC, to current operations at Mustang Ramp, in early July.
Each Kiowa crew chief is responsible for an individual airframe. A crew chief is with their assigned aircraft when it takes off, acting as a fireguard and troubleshooting any issues that come up during takeoff. A crew chief is also on the pad when the Kiowa lands, inspecting the aircraft for any necessary maintenance. Crew chiefs perform operator level maintenance to include inspection of the components throughout the airframe. They also perform beyond the operator level, conducting unscheduled mast and engine replacements. Maintenance coverage is continuous — 24 hours a day.
"All of our operations are founded on skill, motivation and perseverance comes from our maintainers," said Capt. John Merkel, Kiowa pilot. "We can do nothing without them."
New Troopers learn on the job and are subject to the same deadlines and pressures seasoned maintainers are.
"You ask a lot of questions at first. You really learn on the go, and gradually become more independent," said Spc. David Blankenship.
Blankenship is new to Charlie Troop, a military occupational specialty re-class from Field Artillery. His only exposure to helicopter maintenance prior to Afghanistan was during time he spent in Advanced Individual Training.
"I've learned a lot from asking questions and just doing the job," said Pfc. Kerry Hammond. "The most complex thing I had to fix was the directional servo actuator—the hydraulic system that controls pedal movement. My aircraft was experiencing random independent pedal movement, and that's not something you deal with a lot."
Hammond deployed one month after arrival at Fort Bragg with Bravo Troop, TF Saber. She grew up with an interest in the mechanical aspect of things, explaining that her father was a C-130 crew chief in the Air Force growing up.
Noncommissioned officers are responsible for training new Troopers. New arrivals start off shadowing a more experienced maintainer.
"You have to utilize the crawl, walk, run method, but that is difficult sometimes because of the fast pace, said Sgt. Sean Sullivan, an experienced Kiowa maintainer from Bravo Troop who has trained several new Troopers.
The challenges facing a Kiowa crew chief in TF Saber pertain to shortage of equipment and components, and available personnel—these factors are constantly being stretched to the limit.
"We have a small team from 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, (Task Force Atlas) that comes to help us out," said Francois. "They are among the best I have ever worked with. We could honestly use a lot more like them. There are crew chiefs assigned to TF Atlas that have yet to work on a Kiowa, and we would love to change that."
"It's all about pride," said Francois, when asked about the morale and drive of his crew chiefs and whether or not there was competition between Bravo Troop and Charlie Troop. "There is a lot of Troop pride, and within those Troops, individual Troopers take great pride in their aircraft."
Friendly competition never gets in the way of the mission according to 1st Sgt. Wayne Stevens, Charlie Troop first sergeant.
The crew chiefs of Bravo and Charlie Troops are determined and ready to make the mission happen for another six months.