USS IWO JIMA, At Sea -- The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Aviation Combat Element is an integral component of MEU operations.
Aircraft maintainers have the daunting task of keeping the ACE mission ready to support MEU crises missions including Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure operations; raids; embassy reinforcements; or humanitarian assistance. Maintenance is key to all MEU equipment, but repairs and upkeep are essential to ensure the aircraft of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced) remain in the air.
“Without proper maintenance of the aircraft, we are not able to fly,” said Capt. Zachariah L. Done, the flight line officer-in-charge with VMM-365 (Rein). “We have systems and procedures in place to do it safely and keep the aircraft in the air to support the mission and the Marines on the ground.”
The ACE is based around a tiltrotor squadron of MV-22B Ospreys from VMM-365, and reinforced with CH-53E Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 269, UH-1Y Hueys and AH-1W Cobras from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, and AV-8B Harrier II Jump Jets from Marine Attack Squadron 231. Each aircraft requires different skill sets for procedures and maintenance.
“Each division has Marines that specialize on different systems on the aircraft, and they are very technically and tactically proficient,” said Done. “They are experts at what they do. It takes everyone to make sure the job gets done. It’s the guys on the flight line launching the aircraft, doing inspections on the aircraft before and after every single flight, and doing periodic (phase) maintenance to replace parts as they wear out over time, that make it work.”
Corporal Clem C. Barry, a Huey crew chief, explained the difference between scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. He said scheduled maintenance consists of repairs conducted through a scheduled plan of required maintenance and documented by how many flight hours were obtained.
Unscheduled maintenance is the inspections done by the crew chiefs to ensure nothing is wrong after thoroughly inspecting the aircraft on the flight deck after a major repair or for a random assessment, Barry continued.
Every flight begins and ends with maintenance Marines. They work on the aircraft throughout the entire day - on the flight line, in the hangar bay, and even in the air.
“We do maintenance all the time,” said Cpl. Steven D. Strine, a crew chief with VMM-365 (Rein). “As maintainers, we take a lot of pride in our aircraft. I like knowing the job we did got the aircraft up safely.”
Corporal Christopher J. Stewart, a crew chief with the unit, went on to add that crew chiefs, in-flight, aid with air refueling, resetting systems, and assisting with emergency procedures.
Flight operations are conducted daily aboard the USS Iwo Jima and that requires a lot of greasy and dirty hours. Aircraft maintainers are young men and women responsible for multi-million dollar aircraft and are dedicated to their assigned tasks whether it’s replacing a major aircraft component or the simplest things such as replacing bolts.
Aircraft components may take longer than most to replace depending on the size or location, said Cpl. Noah M. Davidson, a flight line mechanic with VMM-365 (Rein). “For example, a gear box can take a single day shift or maybe two shifts to complete, but if we are changing a valve on an engine then it might only take 15 to 20 minutes, so it all depends on the job. We are always working on the aircraft.”
Done, a Cobra pilot, is especially mindful of the Marines’ commitment to their responsibilities.
“These guys work literally 12 to 14 hour days, every single day,” he added. “They don’t leave until the job is done, but they don’t want to be anywhere else. They are very passionate about having aircraft work and work well.”
Maintenance hours vary from each aircraft platform, commented Gunnery Sgt. David J. Hoover, maintenance controller, VMM-365 (Rein.). He added there is no exact amount of flight-to-maintenance hours, but it changes due to ongoing missions and exercises.
“One hundred percent without a doubt, it would be impossible to have the aircraft function and work if it wasn’t for these [Marines],” said Done. “That is their job, they are working everyday. Without the maintainers and their expertise, and without the maintenance department, flight operations couldn’t happen.”