Helicopter Blacksmiths Forge a Team
Tikrit, Iraq - Shops platoon is the key ingredient to making an Aviation Support Company like Company B, 601st Aviation Support Battalion. Many of the four other platoons have Soldiers with specialized skills, but Shops platoon is full of nothing but technical experts, who are so advanced in their knowledge they spend most of their time in the Army at these higher levels of maintenance.
While camaraderie is high everywhere, it seems to be particularly strong in Shops. "Everyone is willing to help out all the other sections. When one is swamped, another will volunteer help," says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joseph Pope, the Shops platoon leader. "As a platoon leader, it's one of the best sections I've been in, as well as the hardest, because we're expected to do, and are capable of doing, so many things. It's like school day every day. There's always a new part or a new problem to dissect and find out how to solve."
The Engine Shop, with Company B, 601st Aviation Support Battalion of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, dissembles a Chinook engine to perform repairs.
Recently, Machine Shop, which operates metal lathes and milling machines and has two dedicated welders, built a part they are calling the 'Spar Box' tool. It took serious collaboration between all the sections in the platoon, but they built the Spar Box to create a special 'shim' for the Apache. The shim the Army provides is very thin and fragile, so they welded two of them together. The Spar Box is basically a die and stamps out the required shim using seven tons of hydraulic pressure. Now, with engineer approval, they mass produce the part and it lasts longer and works better.
"Basically, we fabricated a tool to make the tool," said Sgt. Franklin Enriquez, of Machine Shop. "It's a very intelligent invention."
Sgt. Franklin Enriquez, with Machine Shop, Company B, 601st Aviation Support Battalion of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division uses a metal lathe to create a custom tool.
These tools are too many and too technical to list, but Enriquez says, "I can't believe that we can make things like that for the Army."
The Powertrain Shop is well known for saving the Army over $4 Million by using their knowledge and muscle to rebuild rotor heads for the Apache. Rotor heads are where the blades attach and are highly complex designs. The Apache has a new type of rotor head, based on the old style, and after dismantling and rebuilding over twenty of them with new parts, SSG Kevin Radke and his Soldiers have gotten the procedure down to a science. Powertrain is another unsung hero: when they do their job well, nobody really notices. But a failure can be catastrophic, because they work on the drive train, rotor heads, bearings, flight controls and other parts that are the absolute basis of a helicopter's ability to fly.
"If anything we do in our shop fails in flight, the aircraft doesn't stay in the air," said Radke.
Spc. Josiah Lancaster, with Airframe Shop, Company B, 601st Aviation Support Battalion of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, marks damaged areas on a CAB UH-60 Blackhawk.
"Everything we do requires cooperation," Radke said, "It's built these Soldiers into an amazing team."
The Hydraulics Shop has been building parts for TF ODIN, Infantry units, Engineer units, and civilians in addition to all the aircraft work they do. Hydraulic problems are common in this extremely hot environment, and hydraulics drive a majority of the systems on a helicopter, from the flight controls to the brakes. The Hydraulics shop also provides support for other units on the COB. TF ODIN requests brake lines, hydraulic landing gear lines and engine oil lines. Infantry units have had a hard time getting replacement parts for damaged MRAPs, but have found the answers they need with the Soldiers in Hydraulics.
"Most of the time we get a damaged part, and somebody is asking us to make another one like it," says Staff Sgt. John Nardi, a section leader with the Hydraulics shop. "The challenge is taking our raw materials and making a totally new part. It requires a lot of thinking outside the box."
This ability to fabricate just about anything has earned Shops platoon a reputation that extends beyond COB Speicher.
Engine Shop works on turbine engines. All the parts of a turbine engine have extremely close tolerances, measured in thousandths of an inch. After completing over 100 engine rebuilds or overhauls, they're fully qualified experts. A little friendly competition ensues when there's a race to see who can take the back of an engine apart the quickest. The section has over 60 nuts and bolts, so that's no small undertaking. Cleaning the parts is the most difficult aspect of the job, because the sand gets super-heated and turns into glass on spots inside of the engine, said Staff Sgt. Marcus Smith, a team leader with Engine Shop.
"They've pulled together like a family," Smith, team leader responded when asked about the best thing in the section. "You especially see it when a Soldier has a problem, everyone helps out so they feel like they still have a family to turn to."
Engine Shop is almost famous for the bus they rescued from the dump. It was slated to be blown up by EOD, for training purposes, before Engine Shop hauled it back to the section. Sgt. Thomas Dawson bought parts for it off of the internet, but when the water pump arrived, it wouldn't fit the van, so Machine Shop was asked for help. Machine Shop obliged, and now the van runs well, said Dawson.
Airframe Shop is essentially an aircraft body shop. Staff Sgt. Jimmie Crutcher and his section are responsible for the repairs on a UH-60L that sustained major structural damage during an air assault landing. Due to the amount of work and type of critical damage to the airframe it was determined by civilian engineers that the repair was too significant of an undertaking for the civilian L-3 team to handle. The engineer approached B Co, 601st ASB and Crutcher, asking if they had the tools and experience to undertake the repairs. Crutcher examined the aircraft damage, built a plan for the repairs, and then briefed the engineer his plan over the phone. After hearing Crutcher's plan of action for the repair, the engineer gave him the authorization to start the work. Once the repairs began, Crutcher and his team finished within three weeks.
"The entire shop was involved in the repair," said Spc. Josiah Lancaster, who worked extensively on the aircraft. "It took over an entire week to get all the parts made," he added. The damage was almost 3 feet in diameter, and required over one thousand rivets to repair. Heat treating the parts is a delicate process - if you consider a thousand degree oven to be delicate. Constant temperature is the key, any fluctuations and the part has to be remade.
"It takes a lot of thinking before you start making the bulkhead (ribs) and the replacement skin," Lancaster explained. "The tolerance for error is about 1/64th of an inch." That's about the width of a piece of mechanical pencil lead.
Bravo Company has received appreciation and admiration from both inside the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division and from outside organizations. The greatest accolades belong to the Soldiers executing highly complex tasks, putting in long hours and applying ingenuity to the problems facing them in support of the war. Shops platoon is the essence of an Aviation Support Company and has carried their fair share of the Bravo Blacksmith's reputation.
"The mission is great," said Nardi. "Sure, we're an aviation asset, but the other missions we support also indirectly affect aviation and directly support the ground Soldier."
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