Helicopter Maintenance Challenges in Afghanistan

Sept. 13, 2005
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.”

Bullets and bombs

Just like back home, problems rear their ugly head from time-to-time. Back home, when an aircraft has a problem that warrants immediate attention, the pilot can execute a precautionary landing, or PL, and have the problem investigated and fixed. Here, if a situation requires a crew to PL things are a little more complicated. First of all the country is heavily mined from years of warfare, so just finding a safe spot to put down is tricky. Cultivated land is generally pretty attractive in these situations. If a plow has been through the ground it’s unlikely there are any mines.

After finding a mine-free LZ, the crew must establish a defensive perimeter and begin to assess the problem. If you are “outside the wire,” you’re assumed to be in potentially hostile territory. Our aircrews are never alone on the ground however. Even single aircraft missions have an armed escort. If the crew is unable to fix the probem sufficiently to permit a ferry flight back to base, a Downed Aircraft Recovery Team (DART) is dispatched. Soldiers from each shop in the company are selected for positions on the DART team and are fully armed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Each discipline is represented, powerplant, airframe, avionics, etc., so no matter what is wrong with the downed aircraft the DART team has the tools and the talent to fix it and get the bird back to base.

Since part of the overall mission here in Afghanistan is to rid the country of remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda factions, we are routinely called upon to fly deliberate assault missions. As the name implies, these missions involve the infiltration and ex-filtration of coalition forces to where the bad guys are. Occasionally the bad guys resent our crashing their party so they demonstrate this by shooting at our helicopters. The result is serious structural damage very unlike what the Task Force Airframe Shop is accustomed to handling back home. The last time two of our aircraft took direct fire it took the Airframe Shop a week, working 24 hours a day, to repair all the bullet holes. Several of the rounds went through three or even four major structural members before stopping. In addition, the damage was often in an awkward place to get to thus dragging repair times out even further.

Growing pains

The Mustangs did not come here alone. Today’s Army works a little differently than in years past. Now the Army puts together elements from larger units into a suitable sized task force to handle the mission. Active duty units also came to Kandahar Airfield to support Task Force Storm’s aviation mission.

Since training for the back-shop specialties are not airframe specific, it was decided to put all these personnel together in their respective shops. For example, the Task Force Airframe Shop has Nevada and Oregon National Guard personnel as well as active duty personnel from UH-60 Blackhawk, and AH-64 units from Germany. Just as the pilots who fly these aircraft must learn to work together, so must the maintainers. Sgt. Jeremy Hart is from the active duty side of the equation. Sergeant Hart says, “The building of cohesion between the three organizations took a while.” There are subtle differences in the priorities of active duty and reserve component soldiers. That caused some friction at first, but the soldiers of the Task Force Airframe Shop worked through those differences and are now a functional team with a wide variety of talents and abilities.

Challenges ahead

The Mustangs’ mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to continue until March of 2006. The long-term effects of operating in this type of environment will no doubt take their toll on both man and machine. So far, wind, sand, heat, diversity, and OPTEMPO have all tried to quell their spirit, to no avail. They have mastered the challenges they have met thus far, but Afghanistan is sure to come up with some new ones . . .

About the Author

Greg Mellema