US Army, December 28, 2018 - WIESBADEN, GERMANY by Paul Hughes - The motto “keep ‘em flying” adorns their unit crests. They refer to themselves as the “Sky Masters” the origins of which can be traced all the way back to the company’s participation in the Berlin airlift.
Entering their hangar for a prearranged photoshoot on a grey Wiesbaden morning, I walk along the large quiet corridors noticing that nearly every office door along the corridor is closed. The ones that are open contain one or two people in large sterile looking rooms and for a minute, I feel like I have come to the wrong place. In most large Company buildings the corridors echo with the sound of telephone conversations and keyboards tapping away. The large, clean, quiet corridors of the company would lead you to believe this is a large empty building with a skeleton staff of maintainers.
Stepping through into the “maintenance room” a single soldier occupies a desk in the corner of a large tiled office with the faint smell of oils and lubricants his only company. He points me towards the direction of a door where I hope I will track down my point of contact for the morning. As I step through the door the quiet is shattered by a hive of activity. Up to 30 soldiers, Officers and Civilian Engineers hustle around the hangar, working to an accompaniment of classic rock, clanging tools and engineering chatter.
Four Blackhawks lay in various states of repair undergoing different maintenance activities. Soldiers sit in, on and around aircraft busily tightening, loosening and banging components. Check lists are read and re-read, Civilian Engineers clamber precariously on top of open engine cowlings reaching to get to awkward parts in the guts of the aircraft. The whole scene looks more like an aircraft factory where new Helicopters are being built to order than a maintenance hangar such is the stripped down state of some of the airframes.
I am pointed to a room where I will find my contact. As I peer around the corner into a briefing room at least another 20 soldiers and officers sit in a conference room being briefed on maintenance activities.
Within this single enormous hanger, with its misleadingly quiet corridors, lies the beating heart of helicopter operations at Wiesbaden Army Airfield.
1-214th GSAB conducts aerial support for the Command of USAREUR and all visiting dignitaries. Throughout the Battalion they operate UC-35, C-12, UH-60, and UH-1 aircraft. Delta Company do not own any of the aircraft they operate, instead they are 91 people, looking after 18 aircraft in 2 different locations. They are the soldiers, with the equipment needed to maintain these aircraft and they have a long and proud record of aircraft safety.
As I am met by 1SG Damir Hodzic from Alabama, he proudly tells me that “without us, nothing flies” referring to his teams of maintainers, engineers and crew. He introduces me to some of the many people working at Delta Company. Like SSG Gabriealla Nnabue from Dallas. Nnabue a Tech Supply Logistician who has the responsibility for issuing, ordering and maintaining accurate stock of some 10-12’000 line items. Next I am introduced to SGT Rodney Rios a powertrain repairer from Guam. Rios is busy with a lifecycle bearing replacement and then to Rich Clark, a civilian helicopter mechanic from Colorado. Clark is sending an aircraft back out to the flight line after completing maintenance on its pedal adjuster. This is a routine 2-3 hour task, compared to some of the mammoth overhauls currently being undertaken in the sprawling hangar.
You could describe Delta Company as having two bosses. The bosses of quality and the bosses of production. Whilst everything must be done on time to satisfy the production bosses, it has to be done to the 100% satisfaction of the quality bosses. CW3 Hoeu Kim, the company quality control OIC has the job of ensuring that every component at the end of any maintenance is checked and installed correctly prior to letting the aircraft back in the air. It is not like putting Ikea furniture together, there can be no screws leftover. The common goal for the company is getting the aircraft back in the air as soon as possible. You might say that whilst production want it DONE, quality need it done RIGHT.
As an added quality assurance, Kim is also the test pilot who is the first to fly these overhauled aircraft when they get out of maintenance, it goes without saying that he takes his job very seriously.
In Production Control CW2 Matthew Marshall from Virginia is assistant OIC. Marshall helps oversee all the coordination and scheduling of maintenance and the personnel that execute the tasks. This includes avionics engineers, airframe mechanics and electricians to name a few. Some of the challenges he faces daily are that not all the companies he is responsible for are based in Wiesbaden.
Charlie Company (MedEvac) are based in Grafenwoehr. Therefore scheduled maintenance tasks for Charlie Company aircraft involve loading a van full of tools, parts and technicians and travelling down to the aircraft to get it back in the air. This is when he is not battling his other challenge, a common one for Germany – the weather.
Back on the hangar floor, I watch as no less than 4 soldiers work atop a Black Hawk efficiently removing a control plate from the aircraft (which involves a mammoth amount of work.) As I wonder how I can photograph the soldiers, CW4 Thomas Parker from Virginia, the production control officer tells me he is going to get me up there.
Clambering up using the various foot holds and sticky out parts like some highly expensive - and in places - highly fragile, jungle gym to get my pictures, I get a sense of the scale of technical knowledge and attention to detail required to be an aircraft maintainer. Coincidently I applied to be an aircraft mechanic when I was still at school. After today I realize that with my crummy attention to detail, I would not have lasted a minute. It was evident that every single thing is done to a process and is checked and rechecked, nothing is missed.
Carefully climbing down so that I don’t put my foot on a “no step area” of the aircraft, Parker then begins explaining that some of these helicopters were produced as long ago as 1988. They have some of the highest flying times of any aircraft operated by the US Army. This means that a higher cycle of maintenance is needed to keep the aircraft in the air. After only 2-3 minutes with Parker, I get the feeling that he is the guy with the finger on the pulse of every aircraft and every single maintenance activity in this company. Parker has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Black Hawks he is charged with looking after.
Many of these aircraft will actually be replaced in the spring with new UH-60-M variants. These comparatively new aircraft have modern “Glass” cockpits and are entirely digital as opposed to the older analogue systems we find in the –A versions currently maintained by Delta Company. Every pilot and crew member has undergone retraining onto the new aircraft type, in both simulators and with the actual aircraft back in the USA.
After spending only one morning with Delta Company I can already tell just how incredibly active this unit is. All their personnel are working all the time. You will not find a single pair of boots on any desks during the working day. But what you will find is focused professionals, working hard together with a strong sense of camaraderie and morale that I have only seen in the highest performing units.
Delta Company 1-214th are a Company pulling together to flawlessly achieve a difficult mission, under unique circumstances, whilst deployed. A testament to the team work and quality focus of their teams and leaders.