AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- Marine air crews rely on the work of a small community of technicians to safely fly in support of ground troops who are engaging insurgent forces, survive potential crashes or need to reach friendly forces.
The Marines with the Aviation Life Support Systems section, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are responsible for maintaining the personalized flight equipment, survival gear and onboard environmental systems for the squadron's pilots and crew chiefs flying UH-1N Huey and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters.
"We keep records for each individual aircrew member, on everything they are issued because it is all individualized from their helmets to their gloves," said Gunnery Sgt. Joseph M. Miley. "The gear includes many other things; night-vision goggles, personal flotation items, survival vests and radios. We'll repair, modify and maintain those items. All of the above makes it a constant operation from 7-day inspections to annual inspections of the gear."
Prior to their flights, the crewmembers must go to the ALSS shop to checkout their flight equipment. Inside a 20-foot-long shipping container, the pilots or crew chiefs' equipment is stored on its own shelf marked by their last names.
"We are actually the aircrews' last chance, or rather, the gear we provide is the crewmembers' last chance surviving the ditching or crashing of an aircraft," said Miley, staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, ALSS.
According to the Tifton, Ga., native, the helmet and the survival vest are the items most commonly worked on by the ALSS Marines.
"As far as the helmets and communication goes, we work on anything that connects to it, like the boom microphone and earphones," said Miley. "We make sure it fits the aircrew member and that it has a good seal, so that the crewmember can hear the radios."
The term "survival vest" is appropriate as the green mesh garment holds anything and everything needed by a crewmember after surviving a crash.
"There's a lot to the survival vest, which includes the radio itself, survival drinking water, lenzatic compasses, survival knives, flares and a medical kit," said Miley. "We work on the radios at least once a week, reprogramming all 85 of them."
The ALSS section's six enlisted Marines stay busy managing the personalized flight equipment, working 12-hour shifts. However, their duties are not limited to the crew's gear, as they are also responsible for environmental systems and cartridge actuated devices onboard the Cobras and Hueys.
"The Cobra pilots can make adjustments to the (cooling and heating) system increasing or decreasing the airflow out the vents and through the seat cushions, keeping themselves pretty cool," said Cpl. Sean W. Banks, a flight equipment technician and Reading, Pa., native. "The heat and dust are pretty rough on the system, but with maintenance, it will still blow chunks of ice if it's turned all the way up."
Due to the large amount of flight hours put on each helicopter, the ALSS Marines need to constantly perform maintenance on the systems they are responsible for. To do so properly, they reference massive publication binders stored inside their shop. The publications explain step-by-step how to clean, repair and replace components that, together, make up the helicopter.
"Anytime we're doing maintenance, we reference the publications, because things change," said Miley. "Changes come out to the publications, telling us how to do the work, so there's never any guesswork involved."
Inside their section's workspace, the ALSS Marines have shelves eight feet tall by overflowing with publications filled with the 'how to' steps on everything from dismantling the helicopter's engines to washing windows.
"Let's say, for instance, you wanted to repair, remove or clean the windows on the helicopter. A publication will tell you step-by-step how to do that," said Miley. "The enemy evolves, so does our gear and we constantly have updates. You may try to memorize how you did things in the past, but it doesn't work."
In all, it is one-stop shopping for the Viper crews' life-support needs, be they: dirty helicopter windows, broken NVGs, or malfunctioning radios. All can be replaced or repaired daily by the ALSS Marines.