The Connecticut National Guard’s 1109th Theater Aviation Support Maintenance Group has a unique mission. The Groton-based unit is one of only four units in the U.S. Army’s footprint designated for large-scale rotary-wing maintenance and covers a geographical region spanning fourteen states.
The unit’s state-of-the-art maintenance facility allows it the capability to repair and test just about every component in the UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. While most of the work these Soldiers, technicians, and contractors do on a daily basis is focused on keeping the military’s current operational fleet in the air, it recently took on a new, first-of-its-kind project: completely rebuilding two Chinooks that had been permanently grounded after being classified as “battle damaged” following hard landings while operating in Iraq.
The idea for the project came during the 1109th’s recent deployment to Kuwait in 2018. While providing theater-level maintenance support for U.S. helicopters flying missions in the region, the team learned about one of the Chinooks they would later revitalize.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Cavanna, the work lead on the restoration project, said that some repairs can be difficult to conduct overseas because of the time it can take for special tooling to arrive, affecting the theater’s operational readiness.
As these CH-47s sat in Kuwait, inoperable, Cavanna and his team saw an opportunity to not only return these aircraft to the fleet, but to help their unit embark on a project that had never been done before and, if successful, could save the military millions of dollars. Working with the rear-detachment back home, they began the process calculating the costs and laying out the logistical groundwork for getting the helicopter back to Connecticut.
In early 2019, the first of the two helicopters was delivered via a C-17 Globemaster to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts before being trucked to the facility in Groton. Once there, the team stripped the aircraft to its core, with the only thing left intact being the wiring.
Cavanna said the entire project was a joint effort among the aviation maintenance community. Boeing, the manufacturer of the CH-47, sent a team of their own mechanics to help educate the TASMG team about the intricacies of the aircraft and to answer questions. Bill Humes, the Army Aviation and Missile Command engineer stationed at the TASMG worked tirelessly on various repair scenarios of the structural damage and reached out to other TASMGs and maintenance facilities around the country to help acquire parts they didn’t have readily available, since much of the work they were doing was atypical for their shop.
“It’s a big learning experience for all of us,” said Cavanna. “We’re getting the chance to really dig into these aircraft in a way we’ve never done before.”
On June 2, 2021, after more than a year of repairs and restoration, the first CH-47 made its first test flight and successfully hovered independently for the first time in more than two years. This was a significant achievement for the TASMG, not only because it was the culmination of something its shop had never done before, but because it was done under the constraints of the safety protocols put in place thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As they begin work on the second helicopter, they hope to take the lessons they learned on the first and apply them to a Standard Operating Procedure that they can share with other maintenance groups that hope to take on similar projects.
According to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Edward Pelletier, the state Army aviation operations officer and CH-47 maintenance test pilot, he believes this kind of maintenance project is the way of the future for the Connecticut TASMG. Although a complete rebuild of a helicopter is expensive, the ability to move these aircraft to the TASMG and conduct these types of repairs will build overall aviation readiness and save millions of dollars compared to the price of a new aircraft.
As soon as the restoration and testing of these helicopters is complete, they are scheduled to be sent to aviation units in need of additional aircraft.