USS KEARSARGE -- The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit isn’t just an expeditionary force in readiness. It’s an all-purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force capable of responding to a range of military operations with the right force, at the right time, in the right place. To meet these demands, it is imperative that each of the combat elements of the MEU are fully mission capable.
The air combat element enables the MEU to insert Marines and equipment into a point of friction in a fast and efficient manner. Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (reinforced) provides this capability and is the air combat element of the 26th MEU.
U.S. Marine aviation mechanics with the squadron perform a vital role in expeditionary aviation; they keep the aircraft running. Mechanics execute a number of different roles ranging from air framers (those that deal with the body of the aircraft) to avionics (those that maintain the electronics systems). Each mechanic is responsible for his or her respective specialization and they work together to maintain the material integrity of the aircraft.
“Regardless of our operational tempo, safe and good maintenance is always the key,” said Lance Cpl. James R. Shugart, a helicopter mechanic with VMM-162 (Rein).
Shugart maintains the UH-1 and AH-1 aircraft. The MEU currently has UH-1Y Venoms and AH-1W Cobras as part of its air combat element.
“Maintenance is conducted every day, 24/7,” said Shugart. “Even when we are done flying for the day, there are still aircraft to check and things to fix, so we have mechanics on every shift getting the job done to ensure the MEU is ready for anything.”
Maintainers are divided into two shifts to meet the demands of the aircraft and the deployment; The day shift and night shift, split 12 hours on and 12 hours off respectively.
“We are responsible for the safe transport of personnel and cargo,” said Staff Sgt. Eduardo A. Velasquez, a maintenance chief with the squadron. “Our aircraft have to be prepared to fly with full capability at all times in the event we’re tasked.”
The MEU is currently operating as part of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group to maintain security in the 5th Fleet area of operations. The MEU relies on its air assets to support operations in this region.
“We conduct short and long range insertions, provide close air support and reliable extractions and can do so in all kinds of terrain,” said Velasquez.
These operational demands require each helicopter to undergo continuous and period maintenance to reinforce the integrity of the aircraft.
“We conduct daily and turn around inspections on an aircraft every 72 hours,” said Shugart. “These inspections give us a clear image of the material state of the bird.”
These inspections aim to identify discrepancies and engage the personnel necessary to correct them.
“Inspections are critical because they make the difference between sending a safe or unsafe aircraft on a mission,” said Velasquez.
Mechanics execute repairs to the aircraft based on these inspections, scheduled repairs based on flight hours or time, and first-hand concerns of pilots.
“Our mechanics do a great job,” said Velasquez. “They do their job, take care of the aircraft and are outstanding Marines.”
The mechanics recently finished a critical inspection by a higher echelon of maintenance. The inspection was important in determining the fitness of several aircraft to continue operations.
“The mechanics worked hard to make sure our aircraft passed,” said Velasquez. “Aircraft get shut-down if they don’t pass, and our guys did a great job keeping our aircraft where they need to be; fully functional; fully capable and ready to go.”
But there is a greater motivation that inspires a mechanic to work hard, said Shugart.
“It’s important that we are able to send the best aircraft possible out, because it could potentially save people’s lives,” said Shugart. “Marines rely on aircraft for close-air support, medical evacuations, transportation and a wealth of capabilities. All of that depends on effective maintenance to ensure the aircraft’s readiness, so it’s prepared for anything.”