By Airman 1st Class Gabrielle Spradling, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 21, 2016
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The smell of burning oil, wind so strong no one can stand straight and everyone depending on you to know exactly what to do ... The heat is almost too much to bear, but this is the moment where all the hard work, studying and testing pays off.
A Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter is used in many different missions from search, rescue and recovery to firefighting, and also in deployed locations for tasks such as transportation.
A Chinook not only has many moving parts, but also has many different crew members. One of the most stressful positions may be the crew chief.
The crew chief of a Chinook has a complicated job that involves knowing the various ins and outs of helicopter mechanics, doing his own job including safety and maintenance, plus working toward becoming a certified flight engineer.
"As a crew chief, I am not fully qualified as a flight engineer," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Wade Shore, Colorado Army National Guard CH-47 crew chief. "A flight engineer has proven both mentally and physically how to do their job; that they are responsible for their aircraft. The crew chief is progressing to become a flight engineer who is capable of fixing most issues during flight and can make the call to land if the problem is calls for it."
Crew chiefs normally start out as mechanics and when they become promotion eligible they have the opportunity to join a crew.
"There's a saying in Flight Company: 'You're the first one to show up, the last one to leave, and if anything breaks it's your fault. Welcome to Bravo company,'" said U.S. Army Sgt. Benjamin Stocker, Colorado Army National Guard CH-47 flight engineer and mechanic. "There's a lot of work to becoming a crew chief. Soldiers who are mechanics spend years turning wrenches in the hangar before even getting the chance to be promoted into flight company."
Before they are allowed to join, they must endure a lengthy interview process with the commander, first sergeant and the flight instructors of the company. If they are given approval by all of those individuals, then the next step is a flight physical, which can easily disqualify many soldiers. After all of that, mechanics can finally call themselves crew chiefs and begin being a part of the crew.
Shore explained the rank hierarchy has less of an effect on the Chinook world than the rest of the military. Higher rank does not always mean that the soldier has more experience that job. The lower ranking could have a higher position in the crew because he obtained flight status sooner. It is not uncommon to have higher ranking enlisted to report to lower-ranking soldiers.
"What I do as a crew chief, I report to a flight engineer, he's in charge of the aircraft," said Shore. "As an E-6 I can actually report to an E-4 flight engineer. There are no egos allowed on the aircraft, it really just cannot happen. As an E-6 I can't tell that E-4 'oh by the way, I'm in charge' because once we are working on the aircraft all the rank kind of goes out the window."
With egos in check, the crew chiefs must also be able to think on their feet and know every second what must be done.
"My goal is to ensure that we are doing our missions safely and that we are capable of accomplishing them," said Shore. "I make sure they are doing the right thing and that the aircraft is not having any issues."
One difficult part of flying as a crew chief is being tested by a flight instructor over the needed knowledge of a flight engineer.
"If you are flying with a flight instructor, they are asking you questions," said Shore. "So we'll be flying along and he'll say 'Without looking at the gauges, what are the normal pressures of the utility hydraulic system?' And you have to know it within the second. It is literally a quiz the whole time. They are not doing it to be mean, they are doing it to make sure that you are learning, so that you can move to flight engineer."
The way a crew chief and the flight instructors work together will dictate how much the crew chief learns and how fast he will become a flight engineer.
"You can't get mad, you just have to take it," said Shore. "If you get mad, it just makes them want to push you harder. After the flight they will do a debrief and talk to you about what went wrong, but during flight you have to take it, change and move on."
There are over 15 books and manuals that crew chiefs are required to learn from and be tested on both in-flight and on the ground.
Stocker said that the key to a crew chief's job is to study and always know what needs to be done.
Listening to the pilots asking for checks to be done while also listening to the flight instructor's questions can be quite stressful.
"When I go home at night I am just exhausted, physically and mentally," said Shore.
Those who get the opportunity to fly with a Chinook crew do not see all the work done behind the scenes. The work during the flight is what the crew gets noticed for, but it is the work before and after that makes or breaks every flight.
"From an outside view, we pick you up, we fly away, we move you where you need to go, you see us work for maybe an hour or two, depending on the flight length," said Shore. "As a crew chief, there is two hours of prep time just to get the aircraft ready, in addition to flying, then once you get back there is an additional hour or two of shut down."
The hard work and dedication of a Chinook crew chief is easily seen by the time and effort they put into making sure their aircraft is always safe and ready to fly. Their love for the job pours out of them and shows in their work.
"It's one of the best jobs in the Army, it is definitely the most fun," said Shore.
The excitement and even the mundane tasks that a crew chief handles make the job what it is. It takes a special type of soldier to know everything from one job, while doing their own job and being tested on a new set of skills, described Shore.
The crew chief wears many hats in the Chinook crew and does it proudly.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series featuring a CH-47 Chinook crew from the CW5 David R. Carter Army National Guard Aviation Support Facility on Buckley Air Force Base.