JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Alaska Air National Guard Senior Airman John Catiller popped out the top of the shell of a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, meticulously fastening a windshield to the helicopter while ensuring precise torque for each screw.
The chopper was stripped to the frame, most of its bits and pieces removed by 176th Maintenance Group Airmen representing several maintenance disciplines. The Pave Hawk looked more like an Erector set than a helicopter built for combat search and rescue operations.
Tech. Sgt. Walker Haken, an HH-60 dedicated crew chief with the 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said the comprehensive maintenance procedure is a months-long process that keeps the HH-60 in prime mechanical condition.
“Every 600 hours, we bring the aircraft into what is called a phase inspection,” he explained. “We tear it down, we take a lot of the components off, we disassemble the components, and we inspect for damage and wear. We're checking to ensure the components can last until the next 600 hours or until depot maintenance.”
While Haken has overall responsibility for the maintenance of his assigned helicopter, he said he relies on electrical systems Airmen to repair wires; aircraft hydraulics systems Airmen to replace servos and pumps; aircraft metals technology Airmen to weld and fabricate parts; avionics systems Airmen to repair subsystems such as communications and navigation, guidance and control, and electronic countermeasures; engine propulsion Airmen to maintain the turboshaft engines; weapons system Airmen to tune up the minigun, and aircraft structural maintenance Airmen to repair the skin of the aircraft.
Tech. Sgt. Joe Santiago, an aircraft structural maintenance craftsman with the 176th Maintenance Squadron, said he gets after whatever faults a crew chief finds during the inspection.
“It's their job to find the discrepancies, and it's my job to fix it,” he said.
A lot of the skills Santiago uses to keep the skin of the aircraft strong are age-old, he said, going back to medieval blacksmiths forming armor out of sheet metal. Still, he uses computer technology to meticulously fabricate parts from precise schematics.
As far back as the first metal aircraft, rivets have been used to bind the skin of an aircraft together. During a phase inspection, Santiago does the grueling work of punching out corroded rivets and replacing them.
During this phase, Santiago had to replace a rivet that had only a few inches clearance to an adjacent panel. Like Andy Dufresne boring a hole out of Shawshank Prison with a tiny rock hammer, Santiago meticulously hammered out the offending rivet two-inch stroke by painstaking two-inch stroke.
Though the process of the inspection takes a few months, Haken said the phase follows a strict schedule to ensure the helicopter is mission-ready on time. He said it can be quite stressful for phase supervisors to orchestrate all the inspection and repair work, but it builds with anticipation as the crew gets closer to completion.
“I like breaking the helicopter down,” he said. “I like tearing it apart and reassembling it.”
Once the Pave Hawk is put back together, it is up to Haken to inspect everyone's work before he signs off certifying the phase's maintenance work is complete.
When the wires are routed back into their conduits, when the engine is mated to the gearbox, when the rescue hoist is bolted back into place, and when the aircraft is all back together, there is still work to be done for the phase crew.
Haken said operational checks ensure the Pave Hawk is fully ready for service. The specialists ensure their systems properly function and are integrated with other aircraft systems. Pilots help check flight controls and other systems they directly interface with.
The helicopter is taken out on function-check flights, and the crew checks autopilot and hover systems, ensuring there are no vibrations or rattles.
Finally, when the HH-60 is put back into service conducting rescue operations across Alaska and the world, it is up to Haken to ensure it is ready for any mission. Six hundred hours of service later, the crew chief will start the process again, tearing the bird down and building it up again.