Day or night, in sunshine or thunderstorms, Aviation Center Logistics Command teams out of Fort Rucker, Alabama, did what had to be done to unload aircraft arriving from combat zones for reset.
Reset is the Army’s process of bringing equipment back up to operating standard following deployments and before being returned to their home units – or, in this case, to the home of Army aviation.
The Army tasked the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command Aviation Field Maintenance Directorate to plan and execute Special Technical Inspection and Repair activities for induction, repair and return of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
And with that, the reset program began.
“Our mission here at the ACLC was [that] all of the aircraft were going to be delivered to Fort Rucker initially until funding, manpower and slots became available and then we would we would start sending the aircraft to the reset facilities,” said Jack Martin, Knox Army Airfield manager and contracting officer representative.
“Previously, all aircraft returning from the [U.S. Central Command area of responsibility] were reset but, with current fiscal constraints, now aircraft are scored using the conditions-based decision support tool and prioritized accordingly,” said Neil West, AMCOM AFMD associate director. “The CBDST scores aircraft based on six factors – utilization, environment, flight/operational, age, facilities and operations tempo – to determine which aircraft need maintenance the soonest.”
“This maintenance action is a complete serviceability inspection and repair with a thorough cleaning of the airframe and dynamic components and completion of all phase inspections,” West said. “With the level of disassembly required, an airframe condition evaluation is completed and airframe faults are corrected. Application of all available technology upgrades occur simultaneously.”
The Chinooks arrived one or two at a time between June and July 2020 at the Dothan Regional Airport, Alabama, via U.S. Air Force C-5 and C-17 cargo aircraft.
The ultimate goal was to integrate the Chinooks into the training fleet at Fort Rucker.
Though the aircraft weren't deemed unsafe to fly, given the wear and tear Chinooks in the training fleet endure with student pilots, Martin said they wouldn't have been able to sustain the operational tempo of the mission at Fort Rucker.
“That's why it was determined [to] go ahead and reset all these aircraft before we put them into the fleet,” he explained. “The initial idea had been [to] just put them together and fly them here but, as we started inspecting the aircraft, there was significant airframe damage or structural problems with the aircraft and it just didn't make sense to do that. So that's why they all got reset at Campbell or Bragg.”
“You never knew when the aircraft was actually going to land,” Martin said. “You can track it – there's a tracker that the airports uses but it's not perfect so sometimes they divert for customs or to get fuel somewhere – all the things that you don't know about.”
Sometimes the crews of 15 or so had to wait four or five hours for the aircraft to arrive.
“The fun part here is our contract maintenance team are old school; they don't have a lot of brand-new mechanics that are retired from the Army so they're not familiar with offloading off of strategic Air Force aircraft. We had our Soldiers and our recently retired Soldiers that have a lot of experience offloading,” he explained. “So as much as we have separation between the government side and the contract side, this is the one time that all disappeared because the contractor didn't fully understand how to offload aircraft and our guys and their guys just got together and they just did a big team effort. It was it was really kind of neat to watch.”
“We had thunderstorms, we had sideways rain – it must have been 106 or 108 degrees [once],” Martin recounted. “Then there’s the normal South Alabama 100% humidity and everybody is just soaking wet and everybody's just working, though – they were just getting it done.”
And get it done they did. Because the Air Force had to adhere to schedules, inclement weather was not a reason to delay the offloading process. Once the cargo planes touched down, a stopwatch of sorts began so the offload and refueling could take place and get the crew to the next leg of the mission.
Aircraft were removed from the cargo planes using cable, tow bars and momentum from the downward slope of the ramp and pulled to a special hangar until transportation can be arranged to reset facilities at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, or Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Certain parts of the helicopters are removed during transport so they fit on the cargo planes. Once the Chinooks land and are offloaded, they are often left in a state of disassembly so they fit on the trailer beds that transport them to the reset facilities. The loads must be narrow enough to fit on roads, bridges and such. ACLC teams also had to be confident the trailers were sturdy enough to sustain the load for the duration of the road trip.
Two were able to be sent to Fort Campbell immediately, while others sat in a hangar at Fort Rucker until funding allowed them to be shipped for reset. In total four went to Kentucky and the other two went to North Carolina.
By September 2020, all six helicopters had been sent for reset and were complete within 4 1/2 to five months. Instructor pilots or test pilots were then sent to reset sites to fly the Chinooks back to Fort Rucker where they were integrated into the training fleet of 44 aircraft.