FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARRIOR, Iraq - When most people think of Army aviation, they picture pilots and helicopters flying the skies, transporting supplies and people, medically evacuating wounded troops, or providing close air support and overwatch security to ground forces.
While it is true that Army helicopters do all this (and more), often overlooked are the ground support elements that refuel, arm and maintain those aircraft, working around the clock daily to keep aviators and their machines flying high.
For 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, these behind-the-scenes Soldiers keeping their fleet of OH-58D Kiowa Warriors in the air are the Troopers of Delta and Echo Troops.
"These are the ground guys who don't get any of the glory," said Capt. Matthew McGraw, Bravo Troop commander and pilot, "but they do most of the work. These guys keep us flying."
Capt. Ryan Gildea, Delta Troop commander, couldn't agree more.
"The Squadron wouldn't be able to accomplish the mission without the maintenance we do here," she said.
"Our headquarters platoon consists of all the oversight folks - from production control, whose primary mission in life is to get as many aircraft as they can up in a day and coordinate all the assets needed to get the job done; to the tech supply office, which right now is carrying about $7 million worth of parts; to the quality control inspectors," Gildea explained. "The quality control guys might have the most important job, because nothing leaves the ground until it has been checked three times - once by the crew chief performing the maintenance, once by the crew chief's supervisor, and the third time by the technical inspectors."
The quality control personnel take their job seriously - since taking command in Warrior last October, 6-6 Cav. hasn't cancelled a single mission due to faulty maintenance.
But before the technical inspectors can do their jobs, the mechanics in maintenance platoon are doing theirs.
"Our 15-Sierra maintainers do everything the crew chiefs do down at the line troops, but have the added contingency mission of downed aircraft recovery," Gildea said. "They also handle services and maintenance that take longer than four hours to complete, such as engine replacements, transmission replacements, and tail boom replacements. We don't want to tie up the line troops with that kind of maintenance - the crew chiefs are launching and recovering aircraft all day and night, so our guys in maintenance platoon take care of that stuff for them."
For electronics and weapons systems maintenance, the 15-Juliets of Delta Company's avionics and armament section are the go-to guys.
"Back here at the hangar, they deal with all the function things - which is a lot in an OH-58, because we've got the Mast-Mounted Sight (MMS) on top. They also handle the radios, black boxes and wire bundles, so everyday they're out there troubleshooting, figuring out what's wrong and fixing it. They're the busiest section on a daily basis."
Rounding out the maintenance company is the shops section, which deals with specialized repairs in hydraulics, engines, propeller and rotors, and sheet metal.
"We can't do it all, but we can do quite a bit," Gildea said.
Down at the other end of the flightline, the armament specialists from Delta Troop join the distribution platoon personnel from Echo Troop at the Forward Arming and Refueling Point, or FARP. The unit also runs a second FARP at FOB Bernstein, providing fuel, ammunition, smoke, and aircraft countermeasures to helicopters not only organic to Task Force Six-Shooter, but also those transiting their area of operations.
"The FARP handles the fueling and rearming of aircraft," said Sgt. Germaine Hewitt, 6-6 Cav. FARP Operations noncommissioned officer. "We work 24 hour operations and see about 50-60 aircraft in that period."
Staff Sgt. William Berry, distribution platoon sergeant, compared FARP operations to a racing pit crew.
"It's kind of like NASCAR, but we're in aviation so we're working on helicopters instead of cars. But it's the same mentality - as soon as the aircraft hit the ground, it's get under there and get them out as soon as possible," he said. "If it takes us longer than five minutes, we're moving too slow."
Sgt. Francis Mix, a Delta Company armament avionics supervisor at the FARP, loves his job even though it doesn't come with a lot of recognition.
"As far as us and the aircraft maintainers, we pretty much carry the unit on our backs," Mix said. "The pilots are great at what they do, but we're like the guys behind the curtain. We're not always recognized - when someone sees a Kiowa Warrior, they're like 'ooh, look at the helicopter with all the cool weapons on it.' But I take pride in the fact that we're the ones keeping them flying."
In addition to FARP operations, Echo Troop is also responsible for feeding the Squadron at their satellite dining facility and providing non-aircraft maintenance.
"The field feeding section provides four meals daily at the Squadron's satellite DFAC located in Cav. country," said Capt. Robert Redfield, Echo Troop commander. "Due to our distance from the main DFAC, the "Six-Shooter CafAfA" is a critical combat multiplier as it facilitates 24-hour operations throughout the Task Force.
"The Troop's maintenance platoon is responsible for the scheduled and unscheduled maintenance of the Squadron's vehicles, weapons, night vision devices, generators and maintenance-handling equipment," Redfield continued. "The platoon requisitions, tracks, receives, distributes, and installs class IX repair parts as required to maintain an operational readiness rate of 97 percent for the 250 reportable items with the task force."
Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Ward, 6-6 Cav. senior enlisted advisor, lauded his support Troopers for all they do, despite the fact that the unit deployed with personnel shortages.
"Our maintainers are able to maintain our team despite a lack of senior NCO leadership," Ward said. "We've not had to drop a mission due to maintenance. We're short eight 15-Juliets, yet our armament guys are out there loading and unloading at the FARP, and maintaining weapons systems.
"They're running 24 hour operations, they're short on personnel, and we're flying massive amounts of hours that these aircraft weren't designed to fly - yet they're keeping us in the skies," he continued. "Without support ops, we'd just have a $6 million paperweight."