Army mechanics keep Apaches flying

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
In the Army, AH-64D Apache Longbow pilots trust maintainers with their lives every day. One minor maintenance error might be the difference between life and death.

With each Apache costing more than $18 million, the advanced technology in these aircraft requires that maintainers possess extensive technical expertise and training to keep the choppers in the skies.

"In an emergency, the pilots can't just punch out of on an Apache," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Williams, 1-135th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion aviation maintenance officer. "So whatever happens with that aircraft in flight, they're riding it all the way to the ground."

The Apaches on the ramp at Whiteman Air Force Base are maintained by a dedicated team of trained crew chiefs who receive their technical training at Fort Eustis, Va.

"For general maintenance, crew chiefs go through a five-month school, and the armament systems technicians go through a nine-month school," said Command Sgt. Major Dave Gail, 1-135th ARB supply/back-shop supervisor. "They're long courses, but all Soldiers must be fully trained before being qualified to work on the Apache."

Despite the fact that technical school for Apache maintenance is significantly longer than most military technical schools, on-the-job training is still required for the technicians to become proficient in Apache maintenance.

"It's one thing to know where the system is and how it functions," Williams said. "But fully understanding the Apache maintenance system inside and out takes experience."

Like most Air Force technical schools, the Apache training at Fort Eustis provides maintainers with basic mechanical knowledge. On-the-job training gives soldiers real-world application in their fields of expertise.

"There isn't enough time to get all that done and accomplish the mission simultaneously. But with OJT, we're always training and always learning," said Williams.

Even though Apache maintainers are highly trained, their work must still be evaluated before the aircraft can take flight again.

"It's flight-critical with just two pilots in the air, because lives are at stake," Gail said. "We have multiple inspections that verify whether or not our maintenance is performed correctly."

Every Apache has a team of one crew chief and two additional mechanics. Together, they are responsible for that aircraft's success or demise.

"In addition to the mechanics, we have multiple support sections, such as weapons, back-shop support, sheet metal, engine maintenance, maintenance test-pilots, technical inspectors and hydraulic maintenance," Williams said. "It takes a team effort to keep these aircraft flying."

Depending on the flight schedule, the work-schedules of maintainers vary. Sometimes, maintainers need to stagger the maintenance schedule to day and night shifts to support the Apache mission.

"A lot of our heavy maintenance requires around-the-clock support to get the aircraft back into the fight," Gail said.

This laborious phase maintenance schedule is necessary, as just one flight hour requires approximately 17 hours of maintenance, said Williams.

"At the end of the mission day, there is a daily preventive maintenance check for that aircraft," Gail said. "Even if nothing went wrong in flight, the Apache is still checked by the mechanics."

Not only is maintenance performed at the end of the mission day, but mechanics also complete preventive maintenance before each flight to ensure pilots are safe.

"It's like a pre-flight inspection on steroids," Williams said. "Every component on the aircraft has a life-cycle, so there is constant vigilance and scrutiny."

The continuous attention to detail can sometimes get boring and monotonous for mechanics, but every check is essential to mission success, according to Williams.

"I don't think any system on the Apache fails more than others, but they're all very important," Gail said.

The Army spends around $3-$10 million just to replace components on the Apache and ensure our Soldiers are flying in a well-equipped bird. Mechanics also have thousands of tools available to complete numerous types of maintenance.

"We have a special tool room specific to the Apache that our mechanics sign out and use daily," Gail said. "The millions of dollars we have for tools are used for maintenance tasks like calibration, measurement and simulating aircraft flight as it sits in the hangar."

Overall, with solid training, rigorous maintenance and an impressive array of equipment, these Army mechanics of the 1-135th have everything they need to keep Apaches flying.

"The mechanics are true professionals and they love what they do," Gail said. "We have an exciting job and we're proud to do it for the United States."