By Sgt. Brandon Little, Task Force XII Public Affairs OfficeJanuary 7, 2008
CAMP TAJI, Iraq (Jan 7, 2008) -AH-64D Apache Longbow crew chiefs are proud of their aircraft. They're quick to tell you it's one of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the Army's arsenal.
They boast that the 58 foot-long war-fighting machine travels up to 227 miles per hour and is armed with as many as 16 Hellfire rockets, up to 75 (2.75 inch) aerial rockets; and can carry 1,200 rounds for its 30 millimeter machine gun.
They'll tell you about their pilots, who are expertly trained in maneuvering and engaging the enemy; pilots who can make an insurgent's day turn really bad ... really fast.
The one thing most of them can't tell you is what it's like to ride in one.
Unlike the UH-60 Black Hawk, or CH-47 Chinook, Apaches are designed to carry only the two pilots; but it's the crew chiefs, on the ground, who keep this aircraft in the fight and running at top performance.
"The crew chiefs are constantly repairing and servicing these aircraft," said Capt. Chad Corrigan, the Tomahawk Troop, 4th Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment commander and an Apache pilot. "Even though they don't fly with us, they play a vital role in launch-recover-launch operations."
"Launch-recover-launch" refers to an aircraft taking off on a mission, coming back, being serviced and then taking off again; all within a small window of time.
"Apaches may all look the same, but they definitely don't act the same," said Staff Sgt. Jason Combs, a maintenance supervisor and crew chief in Tomahawk Troop. "I don't mind not being able to fly with the helicopters, because I know my job is still important to the pilots."
For every hour these helicopters are flown, says the commander, crew chiefs perform an average of seven hours of maintenance.
"There are usually two crew chiefs assigned to each (helicopter); one per shift," said Combs, a native of Pensacola, Fla. "This allows us to fly these birds 24/7."
"When the aircraft comes to us we check it, double check it and then check it again," said Spc. Christopher Kell, a crew chief in Tomahawk Troop from Spring Hill, Fla. "They wouldn't be able to fly without us taking care of the birds while they're on the ground."
Kell is qualified to be a crew chief for Black Hawks as well, but he says he prefers to work with Apaches because working on them comes more naturally to him.
In addition to performing maintenance on the aircraft, crew chiefs also help guide the aircraft to an area they can takeoff.
"The pilots can't see behind them, and can't tell if there rotors are too close to something," said Spc. Charles Ballato, also a crew chief in Tomahawk Troop. "Helping the helicopters back up on the parking pad can be scary because the aircraft can sometimes turn a little wide and you get pretty close to the tail rotor."
Once the helicopter is cleared for takeoff, the crew chief renders a sharp salute and watches as the pilots take off toward uncertain danger.
"We salute the pilots as they leave to show them honor, because we don't know if this will be the last time we ever see them," said Kell. "We lost some pilots last time we were here, and we know that's part of the job, but I just hope the pilot and the aircraft come back safe."
"I get a little nervous every time I watch my bird take off, because I always wonder what if I didn't do something right or what if something breaks," said Ballato, a native of Wheeling, W. Va. "The pilots trust us to take care of these birds and I don't want to let them down."
Even though the crew chiefs aren't flying with the aircraft, their job is just as important as the pilots, said Corrigan, a native of Rehoboth, Mass.
"If I had the opportunity, I wouldn't mind taking a flight with them," said Kell. "Even if I never do, I still feel proud knowing the aircraft I just fixed is about to go save lives and do great things."