Airborne eyes, ears of Malmstrom patrol skies

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Eydie Sakura
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
A rhythmic, almost hypnotic "thump, thump, thump" fills your ears and grows louder as a 57-foot-long metal bird flies over your head and passes you. You realize a helicopter is circling above and you are about to be detained for trespassing. 

The aircrews at the 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom provide a visual and audible deterrence to people who venture out into the missile complex looking for trouble. The squadron's mission is to provide safe and effective flight operations to the 341st Space Wing and to support their security objectives. 

"In addition to the robust and healthy ground forces we have in the missile field, we've also got airborne eyes and ears out there with our tactical response force," said Lt. Col. Bill Thomas, 40th HS commander. "The flying operations here, perhaps, provide a peace of mind for people, knowing that the base has helicopters and aircrews, day and night, flying security missions that provide some measure of solace; some measure of peace for the safety of the complex and its people." 

Colonel Thomas said his charge is to provide current and qualified aircrews to execute sorties on behalf of the mission here. 

Flying the mission 
"It takes a lot of hard work and determination, but it's totally worth it," said Capt. Daran Gaus, 40th HS chief of tactics, about becoming a helicopter pilot. 

A pilot's career begins at the undergraduate pilot training program, which uses a twin-engine jet trainer, such as the T-6 Texan aircraft, for military student pilots.

 "After six months in the UPT program, pilots either track into fighters, heavy airlift, turboprops or helicopters," Captain Gaus said. "After an additional six months of training, helicopter pilots receive their wings and then they're off to Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., to fly the N Model Huey that we fly here." 

Once assigned to their unit, pilots put their skills and training to work and perform their missions day-in and day-out. Captain Gaus' day begins at 7 a.m. when he meets his crew and begins the paperwork that will make the day's sortie possible. By 8 a.m. he's sitting in a briefing room with his co-pilot and enlisted flight engineer. 

They discuss their mission, health assessments, the crew's efficiencies, intelligence reports, weather forecasts and emergency response procedures. By the time 9 a.m. rolls around, the crew has their life support equipment, helmets and cold weather gear aboard the light-lift helicopter parked on the flightline. 

Capt. Ben Brown, the co-pilot, performs the pre-flight inspections on the aircraft to make sure it's ready for flight. Within 30 minutes the helicopter is airborne and Malmstrom becomes a speck in the distance. 

Weight and balances 
"Flight, especially in a helicopter, is a balancing act between gravity and power," said Tech. Sgt. Scott Andrews, 40th HS flight engineer superintendent. "What the airplane weighs is very important with flight dynamics and how it's going to fly." 

Flight engineers are the enlisted backbone to the three-person aircrew on a helicopter, and their history is steeped in flight mechanics and physics. 

"Doing the weights and balance function is our main job," Sergeant Andrews said. "If it's balanced too far forward it will tip over. Balance is very important." 

Flight engineers crunch numbers and compute the aircraft configuration, as well as review weather to determine the amount of torque needed to take off and land. 

"You need to apply a certain amount of torque to the rotor head which is kind of like horsepower in a car," Sergeant Andrews said. "How much horsepower am I going to need to be able to lift up off the ground? That's the data the pilots need in order to make the decision whether the helicopter is going to fly." 

The inception of the flight engineer goes back to the Vietnam-era, where they primarily worked mechanical issues, but were still the onboard systems expert. 

"If something goes wrong, the flight engineer needs to know the aircraft's pieces and parts in order to make good, educated decisions to the aircraft commander and the crew as a whole. [These recommendations] can get you out of a potentially dangerous situation or through an aircraft malfunction." 

The flight engineer also acts as the rescue hoist operator; is in charge of the cabin compartment by securing people and cargo; and routinely runs each checklist so the pilot can focus full attention on the aircraft. 

Maintaining standards 
"Safe aircraft is our number one goal and we are very proud of the mission we do here," said Bob Davison, 341st Maintenance Operations Squadron contracted helicopter crew chief. "Most, if not all maintainers are prior military, with roughly 60 percent coming from the Air Force." 

Mr. Davison has maintained helicopters since 1984, and said prior military people sometimes have a better understanding of how things work from a military perspective, and come to work already trained on aircraft mechanics or require very little cross training with military lingo or mission workflow. 

The maintenance section at the 40th HS has 16 contracted civilians who work two shifts in order to make the mission happen. 

"We are a unique group of people here because we take great pride in the work we do and maintain one of the highest 'aircraft in commission' rates in the Air Force for helicopters," he said. "Our people are some of the most experienced and knowledgeable around; in all aspects of repairing and maintaining the aircraft." 

The crew maintains the UH-1N Huey, a light-lift utility helicopter, which entered the Air Force inventory in 1970, and supports Air Force Space Command's security initiative on- and off-base. 

"The Huey was originally designed for a 2,500 hour aircraft life, but a few here have more than 12,000 hours; that's six-to eight-times their life expectancy," Mr. Davison said. "They're in remarkably good condition which reflects on the Air Force and the civilians who work on them. People care about them." 

Each aircraft is routinely inspected every 400 hours, but daily inspections occur at the end of each flying day, Mr. Davison said. The helicopter is usually stripped down to just a shell and inspected for everything from small cracks in structures and panels to searching for any type of corrosion. 

"A complete inspection of all flight controls and hydraulic systems are inspected to ensure all systems operate as required and the entire airframe is inspected from nose to tail and top to bottom," he said. "Our aircraft are maintained to the highest standards of quality which makes my job much easier on a daily basis." 

Excellence in all we do 
"I'm most proud of the squadron's professionalism; their willingness to sacrifice; and their selfless attitudes," Colonel Thomas said. "Their hearts are in this job and they do meaningful work. I'm proud of their accomplishments and their loyalty toward the mission; they do the work because it's the right thing to do, not for awards, medals or press." 

Colonel Thomas said the highlight of his job is interacting with the young, motivated enlisted Airmen and officers who are continually excited about making a difference, and believes their enthusiasm and initiative are contagious.

 "At the end of the day, the mission doesn't happen without the people," he said. "We serve with great pride, passion and perseverance. We execute a very important security mission that is important to not only the space wing, but the United States government."