By Senior Airman Jason Wiese, 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 02, 2015
F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- Basic maintenance like oil changes, tire rotation and checking tire pressure can go a long way to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. However, breakdowns still happen to even the most regularly maintained car.
Now imagine a breakdown hundreds of feet in the air.
"It's not like you can pull over at a cloud and hop out and take a look," said Ben Postma, M1 Support Services aircraft mechanic.
For this reason, the safety and mission effectiveness of the 37th Helicopter Squadron relies heavily on the mechanics whose contributions go beyond basic maintenance, which keep the squadron's helicopters in flight.
Postma and the rest of the aircraft mechanics team work for M1 Support Services, a company contracted to provide helicopter maintenance to the 37th HS. The aircraft mechanics maintain, upgrade and inspect UH-1N "Huey" Bell Helicopters in support of the 90th Missile Wing's nuclear deterrence mission.
"I've spent my entire life in aviation," Postma said.
His father flew planes as a bush pilot in Africa during Postma's youth, he said. Postma joined the Wyoming National Guard, where he worked as a crew chief for UH-60 Blackhawks. He worked both the maintenance and flight operations side of that aircraft's mission, and now he brings those eight years of experience to the 37th HS.
Likewise, retired Master Sgt. Tim Brightman, another M1 support services aircraft mechanic, spent his Air Force career as a maintainer and retired as a master sergeant. He spent his active-duty career maintaining aircraft from the F-15 to the UH-1F, which is an older model of the Huey, during his time stationed here in the '80s.
Staff Sgt. Cody Meyer, 37th HS special missions aviator, said the 37th HS and its contracted mechanics work well together.
"Without them, we wouldn't last a week," he said. "We wouldn't be able to fly. I have pretty good knowledge about the systems, and I work on my truck and stuff at home, but to work on these things, it takes a lot of specialized knowledge and these guys have it."
The mechanics feel the same way about their wingmen on the active-duty side of the 37th HS, Brightman said.
"We see them on a daily basis," he said. "We see them come, we see them go. We see them mature. That part of working here and working on these helicopters is pretty cool."
The majority of the aircraft mechanics working with the 37th HS served in the military before working as mechanics for the squadron, Brightman said. The squadron uses their prior-service knowledge to its advantage.
"A lot of the guys are prior Navy or prior Army, we have some guys who are prior Marines, so they've all worked different systems," Brightman said. "The great thing about working here is there's enough people around with different experiences that, when we get together, everybody tries to learn each other's job. Everybody here has a certain skillset but we try to be versatile in different areas."
Using these skillsets, helicopter maintainers have kept the Hueys flying for four and a half decades in the ICBM mission -- longer than most of their current crews have been alive.
The longevity of the aircraft can be attributed to its mechanical design rather than a computerized design, Postma said. The repairs are relatively easy and cheap, and maintainers do not spend as much time "chasing" computer errors.
"It's reliable -- and all of these are 1969 models," he said. "It is, for the most part, cost-effective for flight hours versus maintenance hours, and that's one of those things you can't beat."
The Huey was designed to last 4,000 flight hours; however, most of the helicopters flown by the 37th HS have logged more than 16,000 flight hours -- a testament to their durability, he said.
Numerous upgrades made by aircraft mechanics to the Hueys have also contributed to their longevity, Brightman said. Such upgrades include the forward looking infrared camera, giving the Huey crew "night vision," enhancing patrol of the missile complex.
Just as 37th HS pilots rely on the Huey for the ICBM mission, the pilots rely heavily on the men and women who maintain the Hueys, said Capt. Josiah Hart, 37th HS pilot.
Maintenance is the heartbeat of aviation, Postma said. This is especially true for helicopter maintenance because helicopters have particularly rough flights.
"Pretty much top to bottom, we take care of them," Brightman said. "There's nothing on this airframe that is out of our scope of maintenance."
The maintenance crew goes above and beyond the required maintenance checklists to ensure a clean, functional helicopter, by cleaning off exhaust buildup and other dirtying substances, Brightman said.
"We take pride in having a good-looking aircraft as well as a mechanically sound aircraft," Postma said. "We make the joke that we're aircraft detailers, not mechanics."
The mechanics bring valuable experience to the mission from their prior-service and because many of them have worked with the 37th HS for decades, Hart said.
"They're crucial to day-to-day operations here," he said. "We have to work together in order to accommodate the mission. If we're flying and we have some sort of issue, they've probably seen it in the past and know how to fix it."