CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- Keeping 21 aircraft flying is a challenging task no matter where you are, but when extreme temperatures and constant blowing sand that erodes metal and penetrates every crack and crevice are added to the equation, the challenge is even greater.
When the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) moved ashore to Kuwait May 15 from the ships of the Kearsarge Strike Group to conduct a live-fire exercise at Udairi Range, the Marines from the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 maintenance section set up a forward-deployed maintenance detachment, or “dirt det” as it is commonly called.
The detachment ensures the squadron’s aircraft are ready to support the daily, aggressive flight schedule here during the exercise designed to prepare the MEU mentally and physically for potential follow-on missions in the region.
A “dirt det” can consist of any number of Marines and equipment that are forward-deployed from their primary base of operations, in this case the amphibious transport dock USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), to provide maintenance, fuel and rearmament to aircraft supporting operations ashore.
The detachment here is comprised of more than 190 maintenance personnel from several work sections supporting the squadron’s rotary wing aircraft. These shops include: flight line, airframes, ordnance, avionics, maintenance control, maintenance administration, quality assurance and flight equipment. The squadron’s Harrier detachment is supporting the exercise from USS Kearsarge.
During the first five days of flight operations in Kuwait, the “dirt det” Marines racked up more than 1800 man-hours of maintenance in support of 138 flight sorties that combined for 234 flight hours. That equates to 7.69 hours of maintenance per flight hour in this harsh environment where the temperatures on the flight line regularly exceed 110 degrees.
To counter these conditions and provide the Marines the best conditions possible to accomplish their mission, the squadron maintenance control section has made adjustments to the standard “12-on and 12-off’ work schedule the Marines are accustomed to in garrison and on ship.
“The heat of the day between noon and four is pretty intense here, and being on the asphalt just increases it more,” said Master Sgt. Marc Fischer, the acting maintenance chief for the “dirt det” at Camp Buehring.
The day crew arrives at 4 a.m. and works until approximately noon to accomplish all the major maintenance tasks. From there, the detachment breaks down to a skeleton crew, keeping just enough Marines on hand to launch or recover aircraft while the majority of the crew secures for the day.
At 7 p.m., the night crew arrives to pick up the heavy maintenance load and works until 4 a.m. when the cycle starts over, Fischer said.
“I don’t want to say it’s easier, but I like it out here better,” said Cpl. Stuart Carter, a CH-46E airframes mechanic. “You can stretch your legs more and you don’t feel like you have stuff in your way all the time.”
Stuart said he does not mind the heat, but even after just an eight-hour shift, the sun and heat take their toll. He wears a “boonie cover” to protect him from the sun when not wearing his protective cranial and drinks lots of water to stay hydrated, he said. “It’s also nice to go back and take a nap in the air conditioned tents when you get off. That’s a real luxury,” he said.
Despite the conditions, the 162 Marines are happy to be ashore exercising their full capabilities. “The morale here is high. This is what we live to do when we come out with the MEU,” Fischer said.
The maintenance crew is capable of performing the full spectrum of actions required to keep the squadrons' helicopters flying. These include daily preventive maintenance jobs to major evolutions like changing rotor blades or engines.
Preventive maintenance is often the key to avoid major maintenance evolutions, especially in the dessert, explained Carter who had just finished applying protective tape to the leading edges of all the rotor blades on a CH-46E. The tape provides a second layer of protection to the nickel erosion cap already on the blade.
Though the cap is a suitable barrier against the elements in most environments, it does not always hold up in the dessert. “It’s a whole lot easier to put on the tape than to change a blade,” Carter said.
Large items, like blades and engines, are not kept on hand here and the detachment relies on its reach-back capabilities with USS Kearsarge to bring in the parts, Fischer explained.
The squadron conducts a logistics run, normally consisting of two aircraft, back to the ship every two or three days to pick up parts and other support assets that may be needed.
For example, when an engine has a discrepancy that requires it to be changed, it is pulled from the aircraft and loaded on another helicopter for transport back to the ship. There, the intermediate maintenance level Marines, who remained aboard for the exercise, make the needed repairs and return the engine to the system as a supply asset. This reach back capability to the ship is a crucial part to ensuring there are always enough parts to keep the squadron mission capable, Fischer said.
The MEU will continue exercises in Kuwait until the end of the month and will maintain its role as the theatre reserve for U.S. Central Command during its next phase of deployment, which could include more operations ashore.
Going ashore is what Carter is hoping for. “It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s what we came here to do. It’s like playing football. If you train all the time, then you really want to play a game.”
To follow the 26th MEU throughout its deployment, log on to http://www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.