Helicopter Maintenance Challenges in Afghanistan

D Company flies CH-47D Chinook helicopters and is based in Reno, Nevada. Greg Mellema describes the challenges.

In the Nevada National Guard rumors were circulating as early as late 2003 that our unit might be deployed to Afghanistan. We’re D Company, 113th Aviation Regiment, but we’re more often referred to simply by our handle — Mustangs.

D Company flies CH-47D Chinook helicopters and is based in Reno, Nevada. The Mustangs are very much accustomed to flying in the heat of the desert and at extreme elevation and rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Since Afghanistan is a land of similar extremes, they were a logical choice to take over the cargo helicopter operations for Operation Enduring Freedom. By October 2004 we had orders, it was official. The Mustangs were to be on the ground in Kandahar, Afghanistan by March 2005 in support of Task Force Storm. When the Task Force commander welcomed us on board he told us that we were in for some new challenges and added that he was certain that we could meet them head-on, not only as Mustangs, but as “Storm Riders.”

“New challenges,” he said. At the time we had no idea what he meant, but as our first few weeks went by we began to find out.The wind began to howl and the days rapidly became warmer. Soldiers from the outgoing Chinook unit just shook their heads and smiled. “This is nothing, just wait a couple of months.”

They were right. Since then we’ve learned to conduct operations under extremely adverse conditions. Blinding sandstorms, intense heat, long hours, and a daunting flight schedule all conspire to test the mettle of D Company soldier/mechanics.

Wind and sand

Wind and war have been the only constant in Afghanistan for centuries. If it’s not blowing when you get up in the morning it most certainly will be by midafternoon. Most days see stiff afternoon breezes in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 mph. Here in Kandahar, as long as the winds are blowing from the North, West, or East you’re OK, but at least once a week nature likes to burst forth out of the Red Dunes to the South. With winds easily gusting to 60 mph and more, the dust and sand from the desert swirl in to the air reducing visibility to only a few hundred feet. Task Force aircraft are parked outside and frequently have to operate under these conditions.

It stands to reason that any component that has moving parts will fair poorly in a dusty, sandy environment. Nowhere is this more evident than on the exposed flight controls and drivetrain components of a helicopter.

Sgt. Zak Wood from the Oregon National Guard works in the Task Force Prop & Rotor Shop. Perhaps more than anyone else, he sees the effect this environment takes on rotor head components. Sgt. Wood estimates that seals wear out about 60 percent faster operating here and bearings erode beyond limits at least 30 percent faster as well.

“Another problem is the OPTEMPO (operational tempo) around here,” says Sgt. Wood. OPTEMPO is the Army’s characterization of the frequency and intensity of its current operations. In many cases the fast pace of a war zone precludes performing tasks the way these soldier/mechanics did back home. Sometimes concessions have to be made. “Back home, the rotor head of CH-47’s would come off during a 400-hour phase inspection.” He says, “But here, in order to achieve quick turn-arounds, they have to stay on the aircraft.” What this means is mechanics man-handling large, awkward parts and applying very high torques to hardware while on top of the aircraft or perched high up on a maintenance stand.

Turbine engines are also highly susceptible to the effects of sand and dust. The sand erodes components in the compressor section and ablates those in the burner can as well. Sgt. Nick Michael is a powerplant mechanic also with the Oregon National Guard. According to Michael, the torque metering and fire detection systems seem hardest hit by the sandy environment. Since prevention is crucial to the survival of these engines, engine washes take on even greater importance. “We do engine washes twice as often as we do at home.” says Michael. “On top of that, I’ve never had to rebuild an engine that had been shot with an AK-47 before.”

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