American Forces Press Service
Jan. 16, 2009 - Army aircraft maintainers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 4th Squadron can be called upon to find a downed aircraft anytime or anywhere in Iraq. These maintainers are part of a Downed Aircraft Recovery Team comprising five to eight soldiers who are responsible for recovering wrecked aircraft no matter where it is.
"Our job is to get the aircraft back here [to the hangar] safely," said Army Sgt. Gilbert R. Santos, an AH-64D Apache helicopter maintainer who has repaired Army aircraft for 10 years.
When an aircraft is inoperative, whether due to mechanical failure or enemy contact, the flight crew immediately assesses the situation and radios for the appropriate help.
Soldiers answering the call are 3rd ACR maintainers. Some are UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter repairmen and others work on AH-64Ds. Soldiers are assigned to DARTs depending on their expertise.
If an aircraft can be repaired on site, then it is an intermediate mission. If the aircraft is beyond repair, then it is a delayed mission, which requires a DART to remove the helicopter from the area and take it to a place to be repaired.
Santos supervises how the entire aircraft is rigged. "I rig the aircraft the best way I see fit, whether it will be transported out of the area by an air asset or ground vehicle," he said.
An intermediate mission involves maintainers who are part of the aviation unit maintenance section, while the delayed mission calls for soldiers who work in the aviation intermediate maintenance section.
The squadron is unique in that it has the ability to support itself from an aircraft maintenance perspective. The unit is equipped with aviation intermediate maintenance capability, which includes extensive and time consuming maintenance and an aviation unit maintenance capability. Both allow the soldiers to be self-sufficient and respond to DART missions in a timely manner.
A downed aircraft does not happen often, but teams routinely practice their recovery procedures because they must work well together. Soldiers with experience share their knowledge, review training manuals with maintainers and run them through recovery scenarios.
Santos has conducted more than 10 recovery missions in a combat theater in three deployments to Iraq. During this deployment, he led a team of maintainers on the aviation intermediate maintenance section's only recovery mission, which occurred Christmas Day.
"It was most of the soldiers' first time on a downed aircraft recovery mission," Santos said. "Before leaving [for the mission], we practiced what we knew, did a dry run here at the hangar and hooked up an aircraft flawlessly."
The DART arrived on site and worked as a team to recover a Black Hawk in the most efficient and safe manner, Santos said.
"The soldiers listened, worked together and did what they had to do," Santos said. "The mission was a success and probably one of the most memorable recovery missions I have been part of, being out there on Christmas."
The infrequency of recovery missions is not the only challenging factor for DARTs.
"DART is not something you do every day," Army Spc. Christopher E. Kiser, a Black Hawk maintainer for seven years, said. "Getting all of the information, weather, condition of the aircraft and parts needed to fix it, terrain and security can also make a DART mission challenging."
Kiser is responsible for rigging the tail section of the aircraft. "It is great to go out there, get the bird out and see it carried off safely, Kiser said. "The feeling 'I did this' is always a good one."
Another important role in preparing the downed aircraft for removal lies with the soldier responsible for rigging the main rotor, or the head, of the helicopter. One such soldier is Army Pfc. Luis J. Rodriguez, a Black Hawk maintainer, who said he will never forget the Christmas mission.
"We spent Christmas in a helicopter, eating ... croissants and [field rations]," Rodriguez said. "The soldiers on the DART mesh really well and all work together to accomplish the task. It is a good crew and definitely made the mission better."
The unit's soldiers soon will redeploy after a 15-month Iraq tour to Ft. Hood, Texas, proud of their achievements.
"I feel great knowing I got to do my job and help helicopters return to flight, which supports passengers moving safely throughout Iraq and gets others the equipment they need," Rodriguez said.
Kiser said he values the Army training and experience of helping recover aircraft in a combat zone. "I am excited to return home, share my experience and knowledge with other soldiers; train those who have never had the opportunity to recover a helicopter," he said.
(Army Capt. Katherine Zyla serves in the Multinational Division Center Iraq public affairs office.)