PATRICK SPACE FORCE BASE, Fla. --
In the minutes it takes the average adult to finish reading this story, 920th Maintenance Squadron deployed crew chiefs and maintainers often have as much time – or less – to prepare a 20,000-pound search and rescue aircraft weapon system for flight.
Tech. Sgt. Jody Winnett has routinely tackled the charge to inspect, maintain, and overhaul his unit’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters for safe, reliable retrieval of downed personnel in even the most austere conditions, which rightly earned him the elite status of dedicated crew chief.
With roughly a 10% selection rate per unit from across various Air Force specialty codes, eligibility criteria entails demonstrated initiative, technical knowledge, management, and leadership ability.
“I would get my hands in there and learn the different aspects of other people’s jobs, knowing that the more I knew about theirs, the easier it would make mine,” Winnett said. “I like having answers when people are looking for them.”
Whether hovering over icy mountaintops in Afghanistan or scrambling in sweltering 140-degree deserts of Africa, navigating active Hawaiian volcanos or perhaps dipping into muddy swamps along St. Johns River in Florida, the Pave Hawk must be ready to perform anywhere, anytime, Winnett asserted.
The dedicated crew chief title is an integral part of Army Air Corps heritage, dating back to World War II, where a maintainer would assume sole responsibility for an aircraft – an honor that even offered the privilege of naming it or having their own name stenciled on the fuselage.
“This is my helicopter; I take pride in how it looks, how it performs,” Winnett said, “If the flight crew comes out and they see a tattered hunk of metal sitting out there, they’re not going to get a warm fuzzy that they’ll be safe or effective in flight.”
As such, it’s “a feel-good moment when your helicopter does great and the flight crew compliments you on how it flies or how it looks,” he added.
Though the title may suggest otherwise, the dedicated crew chief wheelhouse encompasses intense coordination with various shops that work on the helicopter, comprised of a mass of titanium, Kevlar, fiberglass, and aluminum with a life expectancy about 7,000 flying hours.
Collaboration is critical since the Pave Hawk, an acronym for Precision Avionic Vectoring Equipment, is specially equipped with sophisticated mapping and weapons systems to optimize search and recovery and heighten combat effectiveness.
Upon receiving notification of downed personnel in a concise format known as a “nine line,” maintenance immediately occurs as the aircraft prepares for take-off. The Air Force uses the term “red ball” -- typically along on the flight line -- to identify urgent supply or service requests to avoid mission failure.
“Once that nine-line drops, within seven minutes, our helicopter is ready for take-off, and all the pilots have to do is come out, turn on the engines, and they’re gone,” Winnett said. “You know that someone out there is probably injured, bleeding, and mere seconds could mean the difference between their life or death.”
With five deployments under his belt and 13 years of experience as an avionics troop prior to his role as crew chief, Winnett, said he’ll continue his professional endeavors, which include chief master sergeant promotion aspirations.
Though the initial technical training for crew chiefs is just four months, ongoing component modifications and upgrades on the aircraft call for constant training throughout the life-cycle of an Airman’s career within the field.
“The job is high pressure, high intensity, and you just do your best,” Winnett explained. “My whole mission really is to find problems before they become a problem and just keep supplying a great helicopter to our flight crew.”