KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (May 25, 2011) " In the military, personnel move up in rank, depending on their time in and desire to do so. In the aviation community, crewmembers can move up in position, regardless of rank. Here, on the aircraft, rank and position are mutually exclusive.
All crew chiefs initially join the Army as helicopter repairers, whether they are 15T " Blackhawk repairers, 15U " Chinook repairers, 15S " Kiowa repairers or 15R " Apache repairers.
"In a perfect world, one should come out of AIT and go to a delta company maintenance platoon," said Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Bruce, Task Force Thunder's enlisted standardization instructor. "In the maintenance platoon, they conduct phases, where they tear down the entire aircraft and build it back up. Also, they perform a lot of scheduled maintenance, different things in between, any kind of unscheduled stuff " if the aircraft breaks, they pass it on to Delta Company " big things, not little things. That's where the maintainer gets the mechanic skills they need."
Choosing the right person for a crew chief takes careful observation from supervisors. Supervisors in the Delta companies and troops keep checklists of the skills each individual has mastered. This list helps the supervisors determine who is ready to become a crew chief and who is not.
However, it's not just the skills that are the deciding factor of whether the maintainer advances.
"A lot of it has to do with your work ethic," said Spc. Daniel Ruth of Phoenix, Ariz., a flight engineer with Company B, Task Force Lift (7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment). "What we look for are the (Chinook repairers) out on the line with us, asking us, 'Do you need any help?' They come up to us and ask us about flight. The guys who show us they like to work, they like to learn about the aircraft, and usually those who are more squared away than their peers."
Sgt. Kevin Schoonmaker, a native of Van Detten, N.Y., currently with Co. D, 4th ARB, 227th Avn. Rgt., attached to Troop D, Task Force Palehorse (7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Rgt.), has been an AH-64D Apache crew chief for 12 years. He has had to select maintainers who would be good candidates for crew chief.
"You need to prove yourself here first," he said. "If you want to be a crew chief, you have to show me you can do this job."
Once Schoonmaker is confident repairers are ready to move up to crew chiefs, he sends them to a line unit, where they are groomed to become crew chiefs.
Excelling as a maintainer is not the only challenge a potential crew chief might face.
Crew chiefs often arrive before and leave well after the pilots to ensure the safety of all aboard the aircraft. Long days do not leave crewmembers with much spare time.
Bruce said because of risk management, crewmembers are limited to a 12-hour duty day. In a typical duty day, a crew chief has about two hours to get the aircraft ready, including inspecting the aircraft, gathering gear and maintaining the logbook. If it takes longer than that, the aircraft may not meet its take-off time. After a flight, the crew chiefs must do a post-flight inspection, put away gear, make entries into the logbook and prepare the bird for its next flight.
"One of the biggest things about being a crew chief is time management," Bruce said. "Because crew chiefs are maintainers as well as crewmembers, they've got a lot on their plate."
"Crew chiefs will generally perform crew-level maintenance " basically minor stuff," said Sgt. 1st Class Billy Sargent of Howards Grove, Wis., a UH-60M Blackhawk line maintenance platoon sergeant with the Black Widows, Co. C, 4th Bn., 101st Avn. Rgt., tasked out to Task Force Lift. "Granted, from time to time, they'll do major maintenance, but their basic job is to do 'keep-the-aircraft-flying'-type maintenance. They'll do frequent inspections and frequent services."
While Blackhawk and Chinook crew chiefs can fly inside the aircraft with the pilots, Apache and Kiowa cannot. These aircraft frames seat only two, and each requires two pilots. This grounded crew must be satisfied that their pilots will reap the benefit of their work ethic.
"We do all the same things that a Blackhawk or a Chinook crew chief does " we just don't get to fly," Schoonmaker said.
"The way a flight company is, we don't have just flight mechanics," Sargent said. "It's all flight-status personnel. We'll get mechanics … and put them through the readiness-level progression."
The RL progression consists of two to three months of classroom time, hands-on training and flight training.
"We have flight instructors or standardization instructors who do the training," Sargent said. "You go through a lot of ground classes before you are ready to do any flying."
For Chinook crew chiefs, the ladder to the top has one more rung than it does for crew chiefs of other aircraft. Chinooks are exclusive because they are the only ones to tout flight engineer.
"We don't have a person identified as a flight engineer (on Blackhawks)," said Sargent. "I think the flight engineer training is geared more toward aircraft systems. To be a flight engineer, you have to understand very thoroughly aircraft systems, more so than what a crew chief is required to know."
"Everything falls back on the flight engineer," Ruth said. "The flight engineer is really the bread and butter of the (Chinook CH-)47 community because they are the ones who are responsible for the aircraft. They're the ones responsible for maintaining the aircraft, because they're the ones signed for the aircraft, so they help maintain it."
"The flight engineer is the right-hand man for the pilot-in-command, who is in charge of the overall aircraft," said Sgt. Robert Riley of Waukegan, Ill., a flight engineer for Company B, Task Force Lift. "The PC and FE are normally the more experienced people, and they, together, make a mission-based determination on how they're going to do things that will affect the crew and the aircraft, ensuring both safety and mission completeness."
One may understand an aircrew to be a miniscule version of an Army unit. The pilot-in-command is the commander, but the flight engineer is the first sergeant, in charge of the flight crew.
"It doesn't matter about rank," Riley said. "Although we're all in the Army, and it is an important thing, when you get on that aircraft you might have an E-6 crew chief and an E-4 flight engineer, and it's that E-4 who's in charge. It has nothing to do with rank. It's all about proficiency and experience."
A motivated crew chief or a Chinook flight engineer may eventually become a flight instructor.
"A flight instructor is a flight engineer who has been through the (aircraft crewmember standard instructor) school," said Ruth. "The flight instructors are going to be the guys progressing the door gunners and the new crew chiefs.
"They're the ones who will say when we're ready to be signed off as a crew chief, and they're the ones who are going to give us our check rides to become flight engineers."
Flight instructor is the top position at a company level, Bruce said. At a battalion level or higher, one moves into the standardization instructor position. Their jobs are to train the crew chiefs and flight engineers to standard, he said.
And the circle continues, passing the torch from one generation of repairers to the next.