By Spc. Daniel Bearl, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public AffairsJanuary 2, 2007
TIKRIT - Aircraft play a vital role in accomplishing missions in Iraq. They ferry troops and equipment, provide fire support for embattled Soldiers, and gather priceless intelligence on enemy activities.
But without fuel to keep their rotor blades spinning, those birds would be little more than useless lumps of metal dotting the flightlines of military bases across Iraq.
To keep aircraft fueled and running, Soldiers of Company A, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, keep the pumps at the Forward Armament and Refueling Point on Contingency Operating Base Speicher primed and ready to go 24 hours a day.
"Our average fuel issue a day is 7,000 to 8,000 gallons," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Robinson, the FARP petroleum supply day shift noncommissioned officer in charge.
With dozens of aircraft a day coming in for refueling at all hours, the deployed Soldiers have to work at a higher pace than they would if they were in garrison, where the fuel point is only open for nine hours a day, Robinson said.
Unscheduled refueling stops also keep the Soldiers on their toes.
"We have a radio," Robinson said, "but sometimes they call, sometimes they don't. So, you just have to be ready to go ahead and make the mission happen."
The FARP has several fueling points and can perform hot refuels on multiple aircraft of different types at once.
"Each point is set up for any type of aircraft to come in," Robinson said. "We can do Chinooks at the same time, Blackhawks and Kiowas. Anything that lands here we can take care of."
A hot refuel is when the aircraft's engine is still running while being refueled. It presents its own challenges and dangers that the FARP Soldiers must be wary of.
"The danger of hot refueling is static electricity," Robinson said. "If you don't hook up correctly by bounding and grounding, you could get shocked by the aircraft."
And if there are fumes in the air, a spark could ignite a fire, Robinson said.
But while they must maintain an acute awareness for safety, the refueling crews still have to work fast to get aircraft in and out of the refueling points as quickly as possible.
"I tell my soldiers to think that the longer the aircraft is on the ground here, it's another life out there that could be in jeopardy," Robinson said. "The faster you have them out of here, the faster someone's life could be saved."
Refueling vehicles is not the only job the FARP has, though. It also restocks aircraft with ammunition and conducts quality tests on fuel samples.
Tucked away in a small corner of the FARP is a small lab where petroleum fuel samples from all over Northern Iraq are tested to ensure they meet Army quality standards.
The lab analyzes fuel samples to make sure they don't contain particles like sand or paint chips, to ensure it will burn at the right temperature and won't freeze at the wrong temperature, and to make sure that different types of fuel haven't been mixed together.
"What we do is really important," said Spc. George Belmontes. "If our fuel has a low flash point, at any hot temperature it could just ignite, and we have to make sure your fuel won't freeze on you when you go high in the sky. The last thing an aircraft needs is a frozen fuel line."
The quality assurance lab at the FARP handles all fuel samples for Northern Iraq, Belmontes said. They receive samples from every fuel shipment that comes into the area as well as periodic samples of existing fuel supplies.
Despite the work load, or perhaps even because of it, Belmontes said he enjoys his work.
"Doing this is quite interesting," Belmontes said. "And then to top it off, we're it for Northern Iraq as well. This is the third lab the Army has designed, and it's here in country, here in Iraq."
The lab itself is a small marvel. Set inside a container that sits on the back of a humvee, the lab contains a myriad of high-tech gadgets that allows its operator to quickly perform all of the necessary tests.
Testing just one sample could easily be a full day's work if the technician has to perform all the measurements by hand, Belmontes said. But with the array of tools the lab offers, the full gamut can be run much more quickly.
In addition to being convenient, the lab is also mobile.
"If something goes on right now, we have to get this lab out of the way," Belmontes said. "What do we do' Jump up inside the driver's box, turn it on and drive off."
Though the lab at COB Speicher is only the third, there are plans to stock the rest of the Army with more just like it in the future, Belmontes said.
As coalition forces continue to battle in Iraq, Robinson, Belmontes and the other Soldiers at the FARP will continue to keep the fuel flowing. And while they may not be out on the front lines, every time an aircraft streams by overhead, these troops can know that it wouldn't be there without their hard work and dedication.