MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Spinning propeller blades kicked up dirt as pilots prepared to leave the ground and travel into the air for another mission. All this would not be possible if it wasn’t for the pilots’ eyes and ears in the back of the aircraft – crew chiefs.
CH-53E “Super Stallion” helicopter crew chiefs are responsible for loading up to 20,000 pounds of cargo and observing aircraft traffic from the tail end of the helicopter for the pilots.
Crew chiefs travel to several different schools and spend more than six months training for their job field.
The first school they attend is Naval Aircrew Candidate School, or swim school, at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., where they spend two weeks in the classroom and two weeks in the pool.
The Marines learn basic water survival training, deep-water survival training, first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In addition, the Marines’ pool training consists of swimming mile-long distances and working with survival training tools like the helicopter dunker, which is a device that simulates a helicopter crash in the water.
Crew chiefs need to know emergency procedures in case the aircraft crashes in the water, explained Lance Cpl. Cameron Koerner, a crew chief with Heavy Marine Helicopter Squadron 466, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. They need to know how to get out of the helicopter and help casualties.
Once crew chiefs complete their training at swim school, they travel to either the Navy Remote Training Site in Warner Springs, Calif., or Naval Air Station Brunswick, Maine, for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape school. SERE school consists of one week of classes and one week of field training. Here, Marines learn how to resist interrogations and survive using limited resources.
“I was there during the winter,” said Koerner. “There was snow on everything so finding food was difficult. The instructors actually let a rabbit loose for us to catch once. After we caught it, we gutted it and ate it. For the most part though, we pretty much didn’t eat the whole time.”
After SERE school, crew chiefs travel to the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Marine Unit, or mechanic school, at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. At mechanic school they spend eight weeks learning helicopter basics, such as troubleshooting, and removal and replacement of helicopter components.
The crew chiefs’ final training ends with Marine Heavy Helicopter Training Squadron 302, 2nd MAW, at MCAS New River. During this training, the crew chiefs board more than 20 flights – logging about 30 to 50 hours of flight time. The crew chiefs fly on different types of missions such as night flights, external loads, or carrying cargo beneath the aircraft, and internal loads, or carrying cargo inside the aircraft.
The Marines travel to their first duty stations where they “turn up” helicopters, or start them, load cargo onto the aircraft, help pilots monitor aircraft traffic, operate weapons and perform daily internal inspections of aircraft. On average, each crew chief flies two to three times a week.
“The pilots need us because they mainly see from two to 11 o’clock in the front,” said Cpl. Jennifer Watkins, a CH-53E “Super Stallion” helicopter crew chief with HMH-466. “It’s a really big helicopter – 99 feet long and 79 feet wide from blade tip to blade tip. They don’t have a great view.”
The crew chiefs’ secondary job is mechanical support. They change everything, ranging from blades to engines of the aircraft. The Marines’ job is essentially the same when they deploy, but they fly four to five times a week. The Marines load cargo such as water, food, ammunition, detainees and infantrymen.
“We are the long range, heavy lifting and assault support for the Marine Corps,” said Watkins. “We’re the backbone of the Marine Corps.”
Pilots will continue to have the support of crew chiefs who train for months to act as eyes and ears of pilots on every flight of a CH-53E helicopter.