HSM 77 Maintainers - In a League of Their Own
The day after Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 77 was named the recipient of the Phoenix Award it was business as usual for the squadron.
"The [executive officer] came over the intercom to announce that we won the award while we were all in the maintenance meeting," recalled Logistics Specialist 2nd Class John Krahling. "Then we all went right back to work because it was just a normal work day. I don't even remember what I did that day because it was so normal."
And in typical Navy fashion, the Sailors dispersed from the meeting and headed to their respective workshops to don their soiled coveralls and weatherworn cranials, making their way to the hangar bay to commence another day's work.
HSM-77 won the award for its work and accomplishments while operating and maintaining the MH-60R helicopters during their first-ever combat deployment with the new airframe to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
On April 2, 2009, Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 47 officially transitioned to its current designation as the "Saberhawks" of HSM-77. The re-designation as Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light signified a leap forward in technology and capabilities.
The squadron previously operated the SH-60B helicopter, which was tailored for anti-submarine warfare. But in June 2009, HSM-77 was still preparing to officially operate as a squadron when they received their first MH-60R Seahawk.
Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Corey Hinds, a two-deployment veteran with the squadron, sits behind his particleboard desk in the maintenance administrative office after having been reassigned to a desk job working with the squadron's advanced system management. He keeps track of the entire squadron's training jacket, a significant change of pace from the usual wind and grind of the flight line.
"When I first saw the aircraft, I said to myself, 'There's a lot going on here, and we're going to have a massive learning curve,'" Hinds noted. "The whole electronics of the aircraft had changed. The older systems still had a lot of different gauges and instruments that were separated; now everything is together."
"It was like a 'Bravo' on steroids," added Lt. Cmdr. Aric Edmondson, HSM-77's maintenance officer.
The MH-60R is the latest variant of the U.S. Navy's mainstay helicopter. It's designed to combine the features of the SH-60B's anti-submarine warfare capability and the SH-60F's anti-surface warfare capability.
With the avionics and electronics being the most significant change of the platform, pilots were issued a new syllabus on how to operate the aircraft. Maintainers (specifically avionics and electronics) were sent back to school to learn the new systems.
In short, it's one of the newest, most advanced helicopters operated by the Navy, and with new aircraft come new problems.
"We had no other squadron to reference because we were one of the only squadrons with the aircraft, and we were also one of the first to deploy," Hinds said. "We had maybe a couple of people or squadrons we could refer to, but if they hadn't seen it, then it was like walking into a wall."
Hinds emphasized the biggest issue to deal with was the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) publication, which is essentially an aviator's and maintainer's bible. It has procedures for just about everything for every type of Navy aircraft. However, the MH-60R was so new, NATOPS hadn't caught up yet.
"The [NATOPS] wasn't as in-depth as it needed to be in the beginning," said Hinds. "They had the basics in it. 'Here's the major thing this does.' But we had a lot of trial and error to figure it out."
While frustrating at first, Hinds said the lack of detail in the publications helped stimulate individual thinking among his peers, sometimes leading to unusual solutions.
"We would troubleshoot, troubleshoot, troubleshoot, and troubleshoot until we got fed up and turned the system off. Then we'd come back after a break, turn it on, and it would work. Now step number one is 'resetting the system,'" said Hinds. "We wrote down what we learned in the pass down logs that wasn't in the publication. That way we could refer back to it and teach each other."
When deployment finally arrived in early October, it was a make or break moment for the maintainers of HSM-77.
"When we first got the [MH-60Rs], there were a lot of days we'd spend four or five hours learning systems. When a discrepancy came up, we could ground the aircraft," said Hinds. "But while we're on deployment, we just had to fix it somehow. We had to keep going."
Edmonson echoed Hinds' sentiment and stressed the importance of proper maintenance as it pertains to mission accomplishment and success, emphasizing every maintainer in the squadron has a huge input into the chain of events that allows the helicopter to operate for any particular mission.
Edmondson, also an MH-60R pilot, said the relationship between pilots and maintainers is based really on only one thing - trust.
"When [pilots] are up there flying, they have to trust in me that everything is working. They can't be worrying about their helo," said Hinds. "They put their absolute trust in me."
And as with any team, whether they've been together for a few months or a few years, the experience levels were mixed. But with senior leadership, HSM-77 was able to overcome most obstacles.
"We had a lot of carryover people - former SH-60B pilots, maintainers, aircrewmen - that transitioned to the [MH-60R] that had that senior experience and leadership," said Edmondson. "We did a lot of mix operations on the CVN and on the smaller ships. You need that underway experience because that's what sets us apart."
Every day for about 16 hours, maintainers would go through the mundane and meticulous tasks of opening all the panels; checking all the fluids; looking at all of the wiring harnesses; looking for any foreign object debris, gouges in the tires and discrepancies with the rotors; and performing a top-to-bottom inspection to ensure the aircraft in their squadron were mission-ready.
By the deployment's conclusion, all the maintainers were proficient at the array of responsibilities they were tasked with. For example, installing the Airborne Low Frequency Sonar was a task that initially took eight hours when they first got the aircraft, but took only two hours once the deployment ended.
After all the hours we worked on this aircraft, the pubs look completely different than they do today," said Hinds. "They're 100-percent different, and we made it easier for the people who are using them today."
What may be most remarkable about the culture of the squadron's maintainers is not that they performed such a high level of maintenance on a brand new aircraft in the middle of a combat deployment, but that the Sailors doing the work didn't think that what they accomplished was anything out of the ordinary. That may be why after hearing the announcement of winning the DoD's highest award for maintenance for 2012 everyone just went back to work.
"We don't work toward awards. We do maintenance at a high level because that's the way we do business," said Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class Jose Muniz, a Sailor working in HSM 77's AT shop.