By By Douglas Nelms | June 13, 2014
It has always been, and will always be, the role of a well-trained U.S. Army helicopter mechanic to take care of Army aircraft. However, the problem over the past several years has been a simple matter of mathematics – too many man-hour requirements, too few man-hours available. Enter the civilian contractor. Civilian maintenance contractors have always been a part of Army Aviation, augmenting the overall maintenance requirement, taking up the slack in times of conflict. In conflict, the contractor takes on more of the heavy maintenance while the soldier takes on the more dangerous role of crew chief. But with the decrease in combat activities in Afghanistan, the role of the contractor is also decreasing while the traditional role of the maintenance soldier is increasing.
A recent discussion with two of the Army’s top maintenance officers – CW5 Leonte Cardona, Aviation Branch maintenance officer, AMCOM and CW5 Don Washabaugh, aviation fleet manager for PEO Aviation – indicated what the Army will be doing to get its soldier mechanics back up to their traditional standards.
“As things wind down, soldiers will once again take the lead as they always have,” Washabaugh said. So the plan is to “reconstruct the foundations that the soldiers already know.” This includes focused opportunities for the soldiers to re-hone those skills “that they’ve always had,” he said. “They get their basic training in the schoolhouse, then learn their craft in the field.”
Cardona added that with the ending of conflict, the Army will be “getting back to basics... It’s not that we’re getting rid of contractors per se, it’s just that we have to right size the quantity in order to provide commanders with the capability that they need.” The necessity for contractors has always been there and will always be there, but in a reduced conflict operational tempo, it will be there in a reduced capacity, he said. There are, of course, exceptions. For instance, civilian contractors maintain all Army fixed-wing aircraft. A unit’s maintenance officer is essentially just “command and control.”
At Davison Army Airfield, Fort Belvoir, Va., there is the situation of two separate rotary wing units operating two different types of aircraft with three different types of maintenance procedures. The DC National Guard’s 121st Medical Company operates the UH-72A, using FAA-trained Guardsmen with FAA A&P licenses from FAA. Across the runway is the 12th Aviation Battalion, the Army’s rotary-wing VIP flight detachment serving the Military District of Washington and the Joint Forces Headquarters-National Capital Region (JFHQ-NCR).
The 12th Aviation Battalion also operates the UH-72A, as well as UH/VH-60 Black Hawks. However, the UH-72As flown by the 12th Aviation Battalion are maintained under contract by Sikorsky Aerospace Services (SAS), while the UH/VH-60s receive maintenance from a DOD civilian contractor. And like the DC National Guard maintenance personnel, the SAS personnel maintaining the UH-72As are all FAA-licensed A&P mechanics. The reason for the FAA license is that the UH-72A is a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft, an EC145 painted green. It is maintained to FAA standards so that the Army can sell the aircraft to the civilian market when they are no longer needed.
Also, the Army maintains no spare parts for the UH-72A, nor does it do component repair. When a part needs to be repaired, it is simply sent back to the OEM – Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) – then a new part is sent to replace it and the old part is repaired and returned to the rotable pool for the next organization that needs that particular part.
As for why DC National Guard maintenance personnel are military and the 12th’s maintenance people are civilian, CW3 David Ramsey, contracting officer and government flight representative for the Battalion, said that it simply wouldn’t be cost-effective to send active duty soldiers to the A&P certification course. They would only be in the unit for a three-year tour, then transferred to another military base, probably to work on an entirely different type of aircraft. So the active duty soldiers assigned to the maintenance section are only there to make sure the work gets done.
Ramsey also noted that he feels Army Aviation will not be as hard hit as other areas with the budget problem the U.S. Army is facing.
“They’ve seen how aviation plays a role in combat. But they may go to more of a contractual type of maintenance like we have here (with the 12th) just for that reason. It saves money in the long run because you don’t have to pay people to retire.”
Related: Maintenance News