By Army Sgt. Jason Dangel
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 25, 2008 - As the sun begins to set beyond the Baghdad horizon, the sound of laughter and conversation emanates from the corrugated steel sleeping trailers of Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's Company C, 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade. Behind the chatter, an alarm clock sounds, alerting Army Sgt. David Brocato it is time to get ready for the night's mission. It's 6:30 p.m.
The 28-year-old crew chief knows that proper preparation is a must before any operation as he begins mentally preparing himself for the long night ahead.
"The reason I came into the military and into this job goes back to when I initially joined the Army," the Kentwood, La., native explained, embarking on his quarter-mile trip to his company's flight line. "If I was going to do something in the military, I was going to do something that I really enjoyed. For me, helicopters were the only choice."
As a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief, Brocato's responsibilities seem almost endless, especially working for 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, which has a three-fold mission for Multinational Division Baghdad.
The battalion is responsible for air assault missions, formal aviation mission requests and routine personnel air transport -- called the Iron Horse Express -- throughout the Multinational Division Baghdad area of operations.
With more than 1,000 flight hours under his belt, the senior crewman's responsibilities range from in-flight instruction to performing critical fixes on the aircraft during missions.
Also considered the "eyes of the aircraft," he is required to help the pilots maneuver the helicopter in and out of tight areas and to watch for threats from the sky. Most missions last about six hours.
At about 8 p.m., with the expectation of an air assault operation tentatively scheduled three hours later, Brocato's tone became more serious as he looked over the night's flight schedule. He checked and rechecked both mission number and helicopter number before quickly moving to another office containing maintenance logs and beginning the hour-long process of ensuring his aircraft was mechanically sound.
"Any kind of maintenance or mechanical issues are all logged into a computer system, and it's my responsibility to ensure all the scheduled maintenance has been completed before we even go out to look at its condition," he said. "Aircraft maintenance is very meticulous because of the risk factor involved with flying. If a mechanical problem occurs in the air, it puts the whole crew at risk for injury and even death. Essentially, it is the crew chief's responsibility to ensure this doesn't happen."
Just before 9:30 p.m., Brocato and a trainee, Army Spc. Daniel Simonson, began their pre-flight inspections of the aircraft.
As they scanned the Black Hawk's exterior components, another member of the team informed Brocato the air assault mission had been cancelled. This cancellation hardly equated to anything for Brocato and Simonson, who briefly acknowledged the announcement as they continued the inspection process.
"When there isn't a scheduled air assault, that doesn't mean that we get the night off," Brocato said, laughing.
"The majority of the guys in this company are new to all of this," he continued, reaching for his flight helmet. "When we don't have a mission, we conduct in-flight training for the new guys, so when called upon they can go out and successfully perform the required missions in combat."
As an experienced aviator now on his second tour to Iraq, Brocato said he prides himself in the training of his soldiers and that any chance to show them how to proficiently perform their duties in the air, whether on a mission or in training, is an honor.
Long-time aviators of his unit consider it an honor to watch the young crew chief grow and meld into an inspiring leader, and they predict continued success in his Army career.
"I see Sergeant Brocato in 10 years as a command sergeant major or a chief warrant officer 3 or chief warrant officer 4," 1st Sgt. Michael Davis, the company's senior enlisted leader, said. "He is one of the best and most dedicated young noncommissioned officers that I have seen in my 23 years of service. All of the soldiers and officers really respect him, and he is truly a role model for all soldiers to emulate."
Just like his grandfather before him who was one of Louisiana's first helicopter pilots in the military, Brocato knew exactly what he wanted to do when he signed on the dotted line. Aviation was the only way to go.
With only about 45 minutes until the crew's scheduled take-off time, Brocato went over a few more things with Simonson and ensured the trainee was prepared for the mission, a duty the senior crew chief doesn't take lightly.
"He's been here before, knows the ropes, and he's passing it on to the new guys," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Shott, Brocato's platoon sergeant. "He is a constant professional. I feel very fortunate to have him as a squad leader. We couldn't do all this without him."
(Army Sgt. Jason Dangel serves with the 4th Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office.)