Keeping Birds in the Sky

27 Apr 2016 | Cpl. William Hester 1st Marine Aircraft Wing

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, OKINAWA, Japan – When the morning dew begins to dampen the grass fields in between runways, there are some Marines already at work. The sound of clanging metal rings through the air as they inventory their tools. Sleepy-eyed, these aircraft maintainers sweep the flight line for debris and obstruction, quietly carrying out a profession responsible for the success of missions and preservation of life.

For the next 12-14 hours, these Marines will conduct maintenance and checks. They are masters of minutia in an occupation where a loose nut is much more than a matter of calling roadside assistance; it’s a matter of life and death.

“It’s nerve racking to know this bird is going to fly, and you just told the pilot, ‘You can go fly, and you will come back safe,’” said Kansas City, Mo., native Lance Cpl. Aubrey Cogswell, an aircraft maintainer with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167, currently with Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force as part of the unit deployment program.

Aircraft maintainers are the oil of a squadron. Without them everything would come grinding to a halt.

“If your car broke down, you pull over to the side of the road,” said Capt. Jack Waldron, a UH-1Y Huey pilot with HMLA 167. “With these helicopters, everything has to work or it falls out of the sky.”

Consequently, the maintainers, most of whom are 18-24 years of age, routinely work 14-16 hour shifts, six days a week. In the civilian world, these Marines would be considered college kids, but here they hold the lives of pilots and air crew members in their prematurely calloused hands.

Waldron, from Jacksonville, N.C., said the maintainers are somberly aware of the importance of their mission.

With 15,319 hours without mishap, the pilots of HMLA 167 have nothing but respect for their maintainers, and they harped on the importance of their hard work and dedication.

“Every time I’ve seen a fatality of an aircraft, the maintainers hit it the hardest,” said Waldron. “They’re always asking, ‘What did I miss? And more times than not, it’s nothing.”

After spending over 28,000 hours on more than 8,000 maintenance actions, these Marines didn’t miss a thing. HMLA 167 is scheduled to fly back to Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., in the coming months with all birds intact.

“I can’t do my job -- I can’t do anything that I do -- without the blood sweat and tears of these guys,” said Waldron. “They kick ass.”