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5th FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Sept. 11, 2012) - Aviation maintenance Marines with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced), 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, perform maintenance on an MV-22B Osprey on the flight deck of USS Iwo Jima, Sept. 11, 2012. Maintenance crews are constantly working on the various aircraft belonging to the 24th MEU to ensure they are mission ready whenever called on. The 24th MEU is deployed with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve and crisis response force in U.S. Central Command and the Navy's 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Capt. Robert Shuford)

Photo by Capt. Robert Shuford

Aircraft maintenance aboard amphibious shipping keeps U.S. Marines mission ready

29 Sep 2012 | Capt. Robert Shuford 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

With non-stop flying comes non-stop maintenance for aviation mechanics of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The maintenance crews of the 24th MEU’s aviation combat element, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced), have stayed busy over the past six months of their deployment ensuring the MV-22B Ospreys, AV-8B Harriers, CH-53E Super Stallions, UH-1N Hueys and AH-1W Cobras are always mission capable while embarked at sea.

In August alone the maintenance crews for each type of aircraft tallied a combined total of 9,823 man hours of work doing things as simple as checking wires and tightening screws, to replacing entire engines using cranes and lifts.

An average work day for these crews begins an hour before their daily maintenance meeting when the day crews and night crews conduct a shift turnover – one crew completing their 12-hour shift, as another crew comes on.

From the start to the end of their shift each crew is busy.

“Without the dual shift, 24-hour maintenance effort the daily mission readiness of the 24th MEU’s aviation assets would fall apart.  Aviation mechanics are the unsung core of that effort,” said Maj. Dale Behm, the maintenance officer for the squadron.

Behm, who has been with the squadron since 2011, explains the intensity and thoroughness of the 24th MEU’s aviation maintenance efforts with a comparison to normal automotive maintenance:

“Aviation maintenance is much more complex than having your car inspected once a year and the oil changed every 3000-5000 miles. Aircraft maintenance strives to maintain balance between the multitude of hourly inspections that are unique to specific types of aircraft and parts.  Instead of just sending the car in for a 60,000 mile transmission check, an aircraft maintainer tracks the age (component life) of any one of the many bolts that are part of that transmission.  During a daily inspection all of those bolts on an aircraft’s transmission need to be torque checked and inspected for evidence of integrity, fatigue, and wear.”

And that’s just the small stuff.

The amount of work needed to keep the aircraft up and running against constant wear and tear, and the harsh environmental elements can be likened to your car if after every 200 hours of driving you did a frame off restoration and replaced the entirety of the suspension and drive train, said Behm.

What makes their work more impressive is that these Marines don’t have the luxury of using a full hangar facility like they do stateside at an air station. Their work is performed underway at sea aboard amphibious assault ships USS Iwo Jima and USS New York – two of the three ships belonging to the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which the 24th MEU is deployed with.

“At a dedicated automotive shop your frame off restoration might take months, while our maintenance Marines complete these types of overhauls in 7 to 10 days,” said Behm, a Strausstown, Pa., native.
Such checks are just part of the daily, and nightly, grind for the 320 maintainers of the unit who can be found on the flight deck performing their job in temperatures consistently reaching more than 110 degrees throughout the summer months in the Middle East. 

Other factors unique to the expeditionary environment of performing maintenance on ship includes working on a moving ship in rough seas, working under the dim, green lighting in the hangar at night, and balancing the limited work space available with flight operations and the daily routine of the ship’s crew.

Since the 24th MEU deployed in late March their aircraft have flown to support exercises in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Djibouti.  The squadron also executes a continuous flight schedule that supports the movement of personnel and equipment between ship and shore, and supports requirements of the pilots and crews to maintain qualifications and required flight hours to stay proficient. 

“Day in and day out these young Marines dedicate countless hours to the repair and preventative maintenance on completely unique, different types of aircraft, which keep the 24th MEU ready to support missions anywhere in the world.  It’s humbling to be a part of this team,” said Behm.  

The 24th MEU is currently embarked with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group on a regularly scheduled deployment to the U.S. Navy’s 6th and 5th Fleets serving as a crisis response force for the U.S. European and Central Commands.  They began their deployment in late March of 2012 when they left their home base of Camp Lejeune, N.C.