MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- The faint whir of helicopter rotors can be heard in the distance and gets louder as it slices through the desert air overhead. The AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter comes to a complete stop, hovering steadily in the sky. A red dash of fire suddenly amasses from the aircraft’s mounted rocket launcher, delivering hell’s fury onto simulated enemies beneath, leaving nothing but a lingering blanket of black smoke.
Satisfied with the hunt, the Viper peels off and rejoins its partner, a UH-1Y Venom utility helicopter, completing their close air support mission over the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range in a simulated combat scenario known as exercise “Scorpion Fire,” Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.
The helicopters of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 (HMLA-469), based out of Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, California, are well-oiled war machines ready to rain fire from the sky in support of training and combat operations, but these hovering harbingers of death can’t stay fighting and flying on their own. The job is only just starting back at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, home base for the exercise.
Working behind-the-scenes are Marines who ensure every helicopter is prepared to take flight without issue. Maintainers provide support, preventative maintenance, post-operational maintenance and any last minute preflight fixes necessary before the aircraft takes off. UH-1Y crew chiefs, while aiding with maintaining and inspecting on the ground, employ the GAU-21 mini-gun, the GAU-17A .50 caliber machine gun and the M240B medium machine gun in flight to provide additional fire support for ground units.
“I think it’s a fifty-fifty job,” said Lance Cpl. Jordan Gerecke, a plane captain with HMLA-469. “Without us maintainers, the pilots wouldn’t know if there was anything wrong with the aircraft, let alone have Marines who are fully qualified and trained to fix it.”
For the past week, as the sun rises over the mountains of the Yuma desert, HMLA-469’s airframe and flight-line mechanics, crew chiefs and avionics technicians line up side-by-side, cranial helmets and goggles in hand, ready to conduct a foreign object debris (FOD) walk. Marines start the FOD walk by lining up and thoroughly inspecting the length of their flight line section for anything that the Yuma winds may have carried in the way. As a staple of life in military aviation, FOD walks ensure there are no damaging debris on the ground to be sucked into an aircraft’s engine intake.
Once aviation quality assurance representatives and the mechanics have cleared the flight line, the Marines head back to the hangar for a mission brief and plan of the day; a run-down of the essential maintenance and flight checks that need to be done.
Maintainers work on each aircraft, around the clock, to be mission capable and to ensure they are ready for the collateral duty inspectors (CDIs) to go through.
"Without the maintainers and the supervision of their CDIs and collateral damage quality assurance representatives, the flight schedule would not be maintained as well as it is,” said Sgt. Daniel O'Neil, an aerial observer with HMLA-469. “Working in the maintenance department, you realize how much [you] affect the flight schedule. You definitely get to see the fruits of your labor when the flight schedule is made and we support all the missions.”
With the helicopters ready and flight schedule in order, the crew chiefs and maintainers conduct pre-flight checks on the gearboxes and fuel levels. The pilots start their engines and bring the aircraft to a hover at 10 feet. This “hover test” puts pressure on the aircraft, so the crew can identify broken or worn equipment near the ground, rather than at dangerous heights. Once completed, the crew chiefs ensure that all panels are closed and ready for flight.
In the air, the “Venom” crew chiefs serve as extra eyes to pinpoint targets in their area of operations. While approaching a target location, the gunners mount their weapons, one on the mini-gun the other on the .50 caliber machine gun, and unleash a barrage of accurately-aimed rounds at their target as the senior crew chief gives feedback through the intercom.
“It’s an amazing feeling knowing that you are living the lives kids now-a-days, thanks to videogames and movies, think is an extremely cool job to have,” said Sgt. James Hibler a crew chief with HMLA-469. “We get to sit up in a helicopter, fly around and shoot really big guns, I love it!”
Once the mission is complete, the aircraft return to MCAS Yuma’s flight line to unload unused weapons and ordnance. The crew then receives a mission debrief and the aircraft undergoes post-flight maintenance, resetting the cycle for the next mission.
Their jobs may not be easy, but the Marines of HMLA-469 work behind-the-scenes every day to keep the AH-1W Super Cobra and UH-1Y Venom’s in flight and in the fight.