REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (Sept. 23, 2021) – If you work on helicopters, chances are you are going to get dirty.
That is actually the point of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center’s Engineer on the Flight Line program. Unique in the Army, the program gives engineers the opportunity to spend two weeks on the “flight line” performing hands-on maintenance on Army aviation machines. By turning wrenches, performing inspections and doing write-ups, the engineers are given a unique perspective on how decisions they make affect personnel in the field. Students will work under the direct supervision of aviation maintenance personnel performing various scheduled and unscheduled maintenance tasks.
“In 2004 we were at a National Guard unit in Mobile and there were several engineers there,” said Kris Walker, RAM Aviation Attack & Aviation Systems Branch Chief at DEVCOM AvMC. “We were able to have really good access to some Black Hawks and we said, ‘You know, we don’t really know what these Soldiers go through for maintenance events when they are working on the aircraft.’ We thought it would be really great if our young engineers could work with these guys for a couple weeks, so if we are able to experience what they do, it will influence the decisions we make that help make their lives better.”
This is not your stereotypical government temporary duty station. While they will line up the engineers with their primary aircraft assignment at a National Guard unit, beyond that, the engineers’ experience is basically at the mercy of what problem crops up in the day-to-day life of an operational aircraft.
“You are there to work,” Walker said with a laugh. “You are put through the wringer. You can be washing an aircraft – you are doing actual maintenance. You are a maintainer in training.”
The downside to the program being unique and a bit “under the radar,” Walker said, is that it does not have a budget. Engineers interested in participating pay their own way. Which makes it more impressive that of the 64 engineers who have gone through the training, every one returned grateful for the experience -- manual labor and all, said Mary Ann Brothers, Aviation Branch Chief for the RAM Engineering Division.
“All of our engineers are honored to do it because it gave them a better perspective for those recommendations and confidence in the decisions that they make,” Brothers said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to press pause on the program for the past two years, but AvMC Director Jeff Langhout has expressed a commitment to starting it up again, recognizing the workforce’s desire for additional professional development opportunities.
For the engineers who have participated, that professional development is more than making professional contacts and building institutional knowledge – it is sweat equity.
“These aren’t little decisions – they are more global in how they affect the Soldier,” Walker said. “It gives the engineers a little more empathy.”
The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.