Fixing multi-million dollar 'toys': 1st Air Cavalry troopers hit their 200th Phase
November 5, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - When most kids get a new electronic toy, they play with it until it no longer interests them. But a small portion of those kids, when they get bored with the toy, simply grab some screw drivers and take it apart to see what makes it tick.
It's quite possible that the majority of those kids that take apart their toys end up as aircraft maintainers in the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. Aircraft maintainers from Company B, 615th Aviation Support "Cold Steel" Battalion, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div., recently hit their 200th phase - a major maintenance mile stone.
What does this mean'
It means that this unit has taken apart a combined total of 200 CH-47 Chinooks, UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64D Apaches, and inspected every electronic, mechanical and structural piece in them, said San Diego, native Sgt. Justin Fajardo, a squad leader for the Co. B "Avengers," and phase team leader for the 200th phase.
There are two different types of phases that most helicopters go through, a preventive maintenance inspection 1 and preventive maintenance inspection 2, said Fajardo.
The difference between them is that in PMI 1 the Soldiers take the aircraft apart and visually inspect it, sometimes replacing a part here and there. For a PMI 2 they take everything apart knowing they'll be replacing certain parts and any others that might need it along the way, Fajardo said.
The Avengers have five platoons that assist with phases. Each platoon plays an integral role in completing a particular phase.
First, there's the Headquarters Platoon which handles the paperwork and scheduling for every phase bird.
Next is the Forward Support Platoon which disassembles, inspects, and reassembles the aircraft.
The Shops Platoon provides support to engines, hydraulics, rotor heads, and different structural pieces.
Then there's the Avionics Platoon which does inspections and repairs on aircraft radios, aviation survivability equipment and more.
Last, but not least, is the Armament Platoon which removes, inspects, repairs and reinstalls all of the Apache weapon and sighting systems, and works on all of the electrical and avionics systems.
It's easy to see that the phase process is no child's play - it's a lot of hard work done by dedicated teams throughout Co. B.
For this maintenance phase team, formed of too many Soldiers to list here, it is not only their 200th phase, but their last phase before they head home, he said.
The Avengers have been working around the clock since they took over the mission from the 4th Infantry Division November 2006. Most of them didn't even know they had done so many phases, said Spokane, Wash., native Capt. Christian Ruddell, a platoon leader for the Avengers.
"When we had been here a while I asked someone ... how many they'd thought we'd done, and they said 35 when we had really done 120," said Ruddell.
Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, native Sgt. Anthony Bermudez, a line shop leader for the Avengers, said the Soldiers don't keep track, they just want to keep the aircraft moving through.
"It didn't even seem like 200. When you're out there working on the aircraft, you're not thinking 'this is the tenth aircraft I've done,' you just do it, get it over with and bring in the next one," said Bermudez, whose team works on all things electronic.
For the 200th phase, the Co. B maintainers completed a PMI 1 on a Black Hawk.
Although they aren't flying in Apaches killing the bad guys or flying the Chinooks and Black Hawks moving Soldiers safely through the air, they are still an integral part of the mission in Iraq, said Midwest City, Okla., native Sgt. Patrick McTheny, a technical inspector for Co. B.
"Our job is to keep aircraft flying. We reduce the footprint on the ground; we reduce IED exposure; we're saving lives by keeping them in the air," said McTheny.
And they're doing it at break-neck speeds, he said.
"Our turn around time is really good. The standard is 21 days (to complete) a PMI 2, but I'd say we're averaging them in 15 to 18 days. That's because of the experience we have on our phase team and good leadership," said McTheny.
When standing back and looking at their deployment thus far, there is more to be said about hitting the 200th phase than just the large number, said San Antonio, native Spc. Jared Rivera, an airframe structural repairer.
"It's not that the 200 isn't important, but it's also how far we've come in our jobs," he said.
With all these phases and numerous other jobs that come up along the way, some of the novice
Avengers have matured into experts in their craft, said Milford, Ohio, native 1st Sgt. Timothy Johnson, the senior noncommissioned officer for the Avengers.
"When we first deployed in October of 2006, we were undermanned and had a lot of troopers who were going on their first deployment; quite a few were straight out of (Advanced Individual Training) and had never performed a phase inspection before," said Johnson.
"Thanks to the experienced NCOs and officers of our company, the phase teams pushed through the rough times in the beginning of the deployment and became the quality aircraft mechanics and maintenance technicians they are today," he said.
"Rough times" is one way to put it, another way to break it down is to say that Co. B did seven years of work in one year, said Ruddell.
"Experience-wise, you'd have to be in the states for six or seven years to get this much experience. We've condensed six or seven year's worth of work down into a one-year time frame," he said.
"I remember my first (sheet metal) job took me about six days. Now that same project would last me two hours, three hours maybe," said San Antonio native Spc. George Ponce, an airframe structural repairer for Co. B.
While the phase maintenance keeps the Soldiers busy, they are simultaneously working on other maintenance projects. Like all machines, things tend to wear out, break down, and - sometimes - get shot at, said Ponce.
While working on a phase, if an aircraft comes in that has battle damage it gets special attention to get it fixed and back out on mission, he said.
Contracted civilian maintainers augment the Soldiers during the phases and other maintenance missions.
"We assist the Army; that's our main function here is to assist the Army," said Lucky Luciano, a civilian contractor from L3 Vertex Aerospace.
They'll take up tasks just like the Soldiers in a relationship where it's a give and take, Luciano said.
"If we don't know about something, we'll ask them. If they don't know something, then they'll ask us. It's 50-50," he said.
Another L3 contractor, Charles Frye, knows the teamwork between the two groups created the right environment for 200 phases to be completed.
"To produce that many phases with minimal deficiencies is a testament to the will and the character of the (Co. B and L3) phase teams," said Frye.
"I'd compare our unit to the (National Football League's New England) Patriots right now ... because they've got more power players than they know what to do with. And that's what we're like right now; we look like a Super Bowl football team," said Ashland, Pa., native Staff Sgt. Ron Bolinsky, an Apache technical inspector with the Avengers.
Gone are the days of taking apart toys for these Soldiers and civilians. Now are the days of contributing to an important job in Iraq that directly affects the daily aerial missions. They take their job seriously and the 200 phases are a result.
So, leave the child be who wants to take that toy apart ... they may have a higher calling some day.