Special Operations Aviation / By 1SG Dennis K. McCoy Jr.: It is four hours until sunrise; the ground force commander has his Soldiers massed outside the rotor disks of the Chinook heavy assault helicopters. The air is filled with the kerosene, the smell of powerful turbine engines turning fuel into torque. A lower anti-collision light comes on signaling there is a maintenance issue with one of the helicopters. The ground force commander’s stomach tightens and through clenched teeth asks his senior noncommissioned officer (NCO), “What now?” The maintenance launch team springs into action, led by a well-seasoned maintenance test pilot (MTP) and his trusted quality control technical inspector. The problem is cleared with the pull and reset of a circuit breaker but the MTP advises the pilot in command (PIC) that the fault may return and plague the flight for the duration of the mission. The PIC chooses to bump to the running spare aircraft based on the impact to the flight if the problem returns. The PIC makes a quick call to the flight lead to announce the bump and scrambles to the running spare. The air mission commander relays the delay to the aviation task force commander and in less than 10 minutes the crew members are signaling the ground force to board their respective chalks.
A maintenance tech performs checks on an MH-60. / USASOAC PUBLIC AFFAIRS PHOTO
This scenario has played out many times in the past, with varying degrees of success. The need for competent leaders who are empowered to make critical decisions at their level cannot be overstated when performing combat operations. Understanding that we need competent leaders is one thing; how we fill that need is a separate effort alltogether. When queried about this topic, I looked at my own experience, Army Doctrinal Publications, and what I learned from my professional military education (PME). Aviation maintenance is an exceptional environment to develop leaders, based on the level of accountability Army Aviation has established, to ensure quality work has been performed. There have been vast technological advances in Army Aviation since we acquired our first heavier than air aircraft in 1909. The aircraft have increased in capability and lift capacity, but human capital is still required for the operation and upkeep of our fleet of aviation assets. For aviation to be a reliable combat multiplier, highly effective leaders must be employed. Those leaders cannot be mass produced, or produced only when the need arises. Empowered and competent leaders make the mission happen, and cannot be replaced by technological advances.
Creating Competent Leaders
Army Field Manual 6-22, pragmatically named “Leader Development” states, “Working in real settings – solving real problems with actual team members – provides the challenges and conditions where leaders can see the significance of and have the opportunity to perform leadership activities.” This one sentence almost perfectly describes the environment in which Army Aviation Soldiers, NCOs, and officers conduct day to day operations. The demand for Aviation assets creates almost endless opportunities for real world leader development at all ranks and levels of responsibility.
The benefit to creating competent leaders is greatly diminished if those leaders are not empowered with the authority to make critical decisions at the speed needed to accomplish the mission. It’s unrealistic to expect a junior NCO in charge of a launch team to have the authority to cancel a mission entirely, however that NCO should have the authority to conduct repairs if he is truly to be effective in that leadership role. To develop junior leaders, seniors need to empower them with the responsibility to make critical decisions with minimal oversight.
The Chinook Phase Maintenance Team
Our Chinook phase maintenance teams are an optimal example of solving real problems with actual team members and, without a doubt, provide the opportunity to perform leadership activities. They are also a solid example of how empowered leaders can make a difference and increase the output potential of a maintenance activity.
The teams are usually led by staff sergeants or sergeants who have demonstrated proficiency in leading complex maintenance events. The team consists of an additional assistant team leader (a sergeant or experienced specialist), seven Chinook maintainers, and up to seven shops personnel from the airframe, power plant, power train, pneudraulics, and avionics/electrical shops.
The phase team leader begins the process with a phase brief to the production control shop, the company command team, and to the battalion commander/command sergeant major. Briefing the battalion commander on a Chinook phase may seem like overkill, but his investment of time and attention pays big dividends when framing the importance of timely completion and ensuring accountability for actions during the maintenance event.
Once the phase maintenance inspection begins, it is usually completed within 60 calendar days. The team leader is responsible for its timely completion and must be skilled in project management and communicating his needs to the production control shop if he requires additional resources.
After the completion of the phase, the phase team leader conducts an after action review (AAR) with the same audience and has to account for delays, mistakes, or receives praise for commendable performance in a venue that may not be all that comfortable, but is crucial for his professional development.
During one such AAR, I watched the battalion commander ask a young sergeant some very tough questions about his timeline and the timing of decisions that ultimately led to a later than expected completion date. The commander reiterated to the audience that this was not a failed maintenance event; it was successful, albeit slightly outside the briefed completion date. He presented the young sergeant with a battalion coin and applauded his candor and bearing.
The career path of the aircraft maintainer regardless of specialty is generally the same. You enter the service and learn a skill, you develop the skill, and you supervise and assure the quality of others who are developing their skills. Eventually, maintainers trade specialization (occupational specialty) for generalization (maintenance management/leadership) as they progress in rank and responsibility.
If Army Aviation is to remain a combat multiplier and an asset in high demand we have to afford junior leaders the opportunity to make critical decisions, provide them the resources needed to complete complex tasks, and give them honest feedback on their performance. Doing so will ensure Army Aviation has the leaders it needs to thrive in any operational environment.
1SG Dennis K. McCoy, Jr. is the first sergeant of Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) located at Hunter Army Airfield, GA.