Crew chief: jobs of many in billet of one

8 May 2007 | Cpl. James B. Hoke

Some people look at their work as a home away from home, and usually, it's just a few minutes' drive between the two locations. For the aviation crew chiefs and aerial observers in the Marine Corps though, it's a few thousand feet above the ground. These Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), live inside their CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters when they aren't resting, filling out paperwork or maintaining the aircraft on the ground at Al Asad, Iraq. "Our primary mission as a crew chief is to get a good look out of the aircraft," said Lance Cpl. Philip M. Lopez, CH-53D crew chief, HMH-363. "We are keeping the pilots informed on what's going on around it. We are the eyes and ears -- the troubleshooters -- of the aircraft. If something goes wrong, it's our job to assess the situation and handle it." "The crew chief is like the duty expert," said Staff Sgt. Christopher A. Nino, CH-53D crew chief, HMH-363. "He's got a little knowledge on all of the different shops -- avionics, airframes, maintenance, powerline and so on -- that go into maintaining these aircraft. He's also a plane captain, so he fixes the plane and flies it. Not only that, he inspects the plane from nose to tail, tail to nose, left to right and signs a piece of paper saying it's good to go, too." Working inside the Sea Stallion while it is in flight, these Marines can spend the majority of their day flying and maintaining the aircraft. "The worst part of this job is the hours," said Nino, a 27-year-old Waipahu, Hawaii, native. "We can fly as long as eight hours, but you need four hours prior to that to get the plane ready. When you get home, it takes another four hours to put the plane away, so essentially, it can take up to 16 hours for a single flight. "That's like an extreme, but we have it worked out here so that everyone can cover each other," added the Waipahu High School graduate. "We have four different work shifts here, so it's not too bad. If you have more than one person with the same qualifications, like a plane captain, you can share the load." The crew chiefs and aerial observers, who are originally stationed out of Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, are also faced with the climate and conditions of Iraq, which are a lot different than what they had originally expected. "The weather makes it very tough," said Sgt. Lawrence C. Smith, aerial observer and avionics technician, HMH-363. "I've been in Hawaii for four years, so I'm used to it being summertime year around. We came out to Al Asad thinking Iraq was going to be hot, and it was for the first two weeks. Then, the cold came in. "The cold definitely slows maintenance down a lot, especially during the night crew hours," added the 23-year-old native of Richmond, Va. "At three in the morning, it gets down to 30 degrees. If you have five planes needing maintenance, it is definitely going to slow you down a lot. You are nonstop on the flight line, and it gets pretty cold out there." The weather conditions are not the only thing they have to contend with. These Marines spend countless hours outside the walls of their base above the danger zone, hauling troops and supplies. "We have plenty of things on the aircraft to keep us safe," said Lopez, a 20-year-old native of Los Angeles. "Keeping a good look out, staying cautious, keeping your head on a swivel and not getting complacent is what keeps us safe, too. I'm pretty comfortable with the people I fly with. They've been in longer than I have, so they know quite a bit more than me. I'm learning from them, and knowing that I'm under them and the position they hold, I feel very comfortable flying." The enlisted side of the aircrew with HMH-363 love to fly, as it allows them to take part in and see the results of their and others' hard work on the Sea Stallion. "The best part is you get to fly (on) this aircraft," said Nino. "We have a lot of maintenance Marines here, who are avionics, airframes and powerline specific Marines, and they work on gear boxes, wires and things like that. That's about it. Their job is to fix whatever needs to get fix, so it can fly. "They don't really get to reap the food of their labor," he concluded. "A lot of them wonder what it's like to look out of the window, shoot the gun and fly. That is the best part about being a crew chief or aerial observer."Photos: