CAMP MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania – When Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, arrived here in March, they hit the ground running – or in this case, they hit the air flying. Within just 24 hours of landing here in their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, the battalion conducted an air-assault mission with Romanian counterparts, said Capt. Jeff Timmick, B Company commander.
Operations over the summer occurred at a rapid pace during exercise Saber Guardian 17, he said. Saber Guardian involved some 25,000 U.S. and NATO forces, who participated in joint and combined training in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. It was the largest exercise in the region in recent memory.
Timmick described a typical day of training during the exercise, in this case with a Romanian unit on a medevac mission.
Three U.S. Black Hawk helicopters carried Romanian troops. Leading the formation was a Romanian IAR 330 Puma aircraft, which is similar to a Black Hawk. The mission took them to multiple locations, including the Carpathian Mountains, where a simulated medevac and perimeter security mission was conducted.
Sgt. Cory Edwards, a platoon sergeant, crew chief and standardization instructor with B Company, recalled that this particular mission was an incredible opportunity to meet and learn alongside the Romanians.
With more than 1,000 flight hours logged since joining the Army six years ago, Edwards said safety is still his No. 1 priority during missions. For example, each Black Hawk helicopter has two crew chiefs who serve as the eyes for the pilot and co-pilot as they land in rugged terrain or fly in difficult conditions.
A senior crew chief is always paired with a junior one, he said, so that there is someone who knows the ropes and serves as a mentor for the junior members.
Besides guiding the pilot, each crew chief is also familiar with all of the mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems of the aircraft, Edwards said. Should there be a funny noise or leaky seal, the crew chief will be there to diagnose the problem and advise the pilot on the best course of action to take.
"It’s a huge responsibility," Edwards said. After a while, "you get to know each helicopter’s personality, and you can even anticipate what might go wrong," he added.
Edwards said that he even gives nicknames to the helicopters, because they seem to have their own unique moods.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Falk, a maintenance test pilot, also emphasized the importance of training with the Romanians. "This is a necessary mission to enable a stronger and more self-sufficient Europe," he said.
The former Marine Corps infantryman, who served multiple tours in Iraq from 2004 to 2008, said he knew he would eventually want to transfer to some sort of aviation job, since his father flew A-10 Warthogs and F-4 Phantom jets in the Air Force, and Falk wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Falk’s current duties involve conducting auto-rotation testing on aircraft, which involves climbing up to 5,000 feet and then dropping over 1,000 feet without power.
Additionally, he said, any time there is a new part or repair, or if the pilot or crew chief senses something is wrong with an aircraft, it is his job to test the part and certify its airworthiness. No one flies until the test is successful, he said.
Falk said a bank of sensors and cameras helps him diagnose every blade movement and vibration. The test indicates if the trim tabs need to be bent at a new angle, or if small steel weights need to be added inside a compartment at the end of a rotor to balance it.
The hardest job, he said, is coordinating logistics in this remote area of the world where it can take weeks for a part to arrive. But anticipating what is or will be needed in spare parts is also part of his job, he said.
There is also a system in place to ensure enough aircraft are available to fly at any given time. No more than 30 to 40 percent of the helicopters fly at one time, in order to ensure a reserve in case some helicopters need to be pulled for maintenance.
At any given time, mechanics work on five to 10 percent of the aircraft, Falk said. About 10 percent of the helicopters spend one to two months in phase maintenance, which means being fully disassembled, checked and then reassembled with new or refurbished parts at a distant depot.
Although Falk knows his job inside and out, he said there is always a chance to learn. For instance, he said he picked up pointers from the Romanians on corrosion control, since they operate in a dusty and salty air environment year-round. In turn, he has provided his Romanian counterparts with advice on using checklists and standardizing procedures. This exchange of information has been just one benefit of the battalion’s rewarding stay in Romania, he said.