ABOARD USS IWO JIMA (LHD-7) -- The game took steady hands, an iron will and veins flooded with ice water. Its winner would more than likely be determined by, of all things, the “funny bone,” - which didn’t seem all that “funny.” With sweat cascading down furrowed brows and tweezers poised for victory, the slightest movement would set-off the nuclear bomb of horrible noises – the red nose on the patient in the game “Operation.”
However, that was the only punishment; “Operation” is a kid’s game with no genuine consequences for poor concentration or mistakes. In contrast, the daily maintenance of the CH-53E Super Stallion by the Marines of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) is no game, and lighting off the red nose light signals the unthinkable and means Marines aren’t coming home.
Working around the clock on the deck of the USS Iwo Jima during the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise, a single CH-53E flight requires the steady hands and concentration of Marines throughout the entire squadron, and places a burden of responsibility on each of them to perform their tasks mistake-free in order to keep pilots, crew and passengers safe during flight, said Staff Sgt. Leo Obernuefemann, HMM-365 (Rein.) CH-53E flightline chief.
“Every time these planes take-off I want to make sure that these guys come back safe,” explained Obernuefemann. “Planes are replaceable, these Marines aren’t.”
The maintenance effort begins with a thorough walk-around with mechanics, avionics technicians, crew chiefs and a score of others who work together to “daily the aircraft.” Collectively they pick apart the Super Stallion and probe every compartment and component - an evolution that takes approximately four hours, said Obernuefemann.
“We’re checking the integrity of the aircraft to make sure that it’s ‘flight ready,’” added Obernuefemann.
An average flightline day has Marines spending eight to 10 hours servicing the helicopter; a time they spend earning the trust of the pilots who operate the CH-53E and who rely on the maintainers to provide a safe aircraft, said Capt. James Booth, HMM-365 (Rein.) CH-53E pilot.
“I have absolute and complete trust in their work – you have to,” said Booth. “They do a great job. If the maintainers don’t do their job, we don’t have an aircraft.”
“You can’t mess up, you have to be right on,” added Cpl. Richard Odell, HMM-365 (Rein.) CH-53E avionics technician. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
Much of that responsibility lies in the capable hands of junior Marines who, only a few years ago, were pulling out “funny bones” rather than gear boxes or flight control systems.
“We’re taking 18, 19 year old crew chiefs and saying, ‘Hey, take care of this $32 million aircraft and make sure that this plane is safe for flight,’” said Obernuefemann. “It’s a lot of hours and a lot of responsibility.”
All of the hard work is paid in full when the helicopter lifts off the deck and slides off into the sky - the reward for hours of mistake-free work and pain-staking concentration, said Cpl. Jayson Smith, HMM-365 (Rein.) flightline mechanic.
“The best part of the job is watching (the helicopter) fly after it’s done,” said Smith. “It gives me an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment. I love it.”
“I still get excited,” added Obernuefemann. “I get excited every time these planes take-off.”
Day after day, Marines with the 24th MEU’s Aviation Combat Element execute their maintenance mission with surgical precision and a physician’s eye for detail. With each successful flight that delivers infantrymen during a raid or saves a life during a casualty evacuation, the job of CH-53E maintenance Marines never changes - Make the aircraft safe for flight and never light the light.
The ESGEX comes during the MEU’s six-month pre-deployment workups that kicked off Nov. 30. The exercise involves each of the MEU components: Command Element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 8th Marines; HMM-365(Reinforced); and MEU Service Support Group 24.
The 24th MEU is scheduled to deploy this spring to the European and Central Command theaters of operations.