Flight equipment remains lifeline for pilots

27 Nov 2007 | Sgt. Nathan K. LaForte

Flight equipment technicians maintain the gear that saves the lives of pilots and their crews when everything else goes wrong.

Their mission is to sit in a room and tape, re-wire, stitch and inspect anything and everything crews wear for their survival if they crash, said Lance Cpl. Joseph W. Smith, flight equipment technician, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261.

"We keep all the flight gear up and work on the emergency equipment in the aircraft," the 22-year-old said. "Our gear is the last lifeline for the people in an aircraft."

There is a lot of gear crewmembers wear for safety precautions, according to Sgt. Brock A. Milford, flight equipment technician, HMM-261.

"We deal with personal protection devices, night-vision goggles, flotation devices, helmets and boots," said Milford, a Williamsfield, Ill., native. "We make sure everything is up to date and we inspect it regularly. We are the custody holders of all the gear."

One important piece of gear the techs worry about is the Dry Vest, the 24-year-old explained.

The vest is pullover style with quick release tabs on the sides. It is different in style to the Interceptor flak vests that open from the front and are worn by Marine ground forces.

"The reason the vests have a quick release is for simple survival," Milford noted. "If you fall in the water, the (vest) will take you right down, so the release tabs allow you to get out of it fast."

Technicians make sure vests are serviceable by inspecting them on a routine schedule.

Pilots in a helicopter have armor plating under their seats that protects them from small-arms fire, noted Milford, but crews have different gear.

"The crew has an armor plate nicknamed a "chicken plate" that straps to the back of their vests," he explained.

The plate is designed to give the wearer protection while giving them the mobility to move around and maintain the aircraft or perform other jobs while in flight, he added.

In addition to plates and vests, techs also issue out oil-resistant, steel-toed boots to aircrews.

Another piece of gear is the night-vision goggles with which each crewmember is equipped, Milford revealed.

"We maintain the NVGs on a squadron level," he added.

Techs also maintain emergency fire equipment inside the engines of the helicopters, Milford explained. They do this by inspecting the engine fire bottles and replacing the Cartridge Actuated Devices, or CADs, on the bottles.

There are ups and downs to maintaining equipment, said Pfc. Chris M. Zifcak, flight equipment technician, HMM-261.

"The job can be entertaining, but some parts can be really hard," the Magnolia, Texas native said.

The schedule can be hard to cope with from time to time, Smith noted.

"Sometimes you work regular hours and it's fine," the Honea Path, S.C., native said. "Other times you suck it up and work 18 hours or so and get the job done."

Despite all the hard work, shortcutting the work will never happen, Milford said.

"You have to have constant attention to detail with this job," he stated. "If we miss one step, it could mean one person's life, or maybe even the whole crew."

Zifcak joined the squadron from his basic school only a short while before deploying to Iraq. He has been in country for about a month.

Over the last month, the 19-year-old Marine has learned to trust in his leaders' abilities to teach him, just like the crews trust them to maintain their equipment correctly.

"I just joined (HMM-261) two weeks before we left so I haven't had time to learn everything yet," he said. "My sergeants know the job really well, and they have been teaching me those skills."

As an aerial observer and gunner, Milford said he feels knowing his job is very important to him in the air.

"It is very comforting when I fly to know that I help maintain all the gear on my aircraft," he said. "This way, I get to make sure it's done right."

Smith explained that even if the techs don't see the immediate results while being in the air, the intangible results are good as well.

"It's good knowing that if something bad happens, the gear we keep up is going to help someone survive and get rescued," he said. "I hope we get everybody back home. That's all I hope for."