Saturday, June 30, 2015 – The USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) flight line is always active. Going to the flight-line at night, one will encounter the Marines that keep aircraft running.
The night crewmen with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (REINFORCED) conduct maintenance on aircraft between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. every day aboard the USS Kearsarge.
From regularly scheduled maintenance to advanced repairs and time critical fixes, the night crew provides the pilots of VMM-162 (REIN.) with operational aircraft for the wide range of missions they conduct while at sea.
“We fly from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.,” said 1st Lt. Mark T. Heard, a pilot with the squadron. “A lot of the maintenance [on the aircraft] has to be conducted at night because of this window.”
The crewman work overnight repairing and fixing damages or issues with the aircraft.
“Often times if something is wrong with the aircraft you’ll come in the next morning and it will be fixed because of the night crew,” said Heard.
The crewmen work on every part of the aircraft. Each is specialized to work on a part of the aircraft based on his or her certifications, qualifications and experience.
“They literally spend three or four years achieving qualifications to become experts and make judgment calls on aircraft,” said Maj. Jason D. Egan, a pilot with the squadron.
Each crewman applies his respective skillset within the crew he operates. When operating in the night crew, each crew member must use these skills and operate in tighter time conditions, conducting nighttime flight operations and conducting aircraft maintenance during irregular working hours.
Working within these time constraints can be difficult for some, but the night crewmen with VMM-162 maintain a positive attitude in light of their tasks and share their attitudes visibly on the aircraft they’re responsible for.
“We take pride in our work,” said Lance Cpl. James Shugart, a helicopter mechanic with the squadron. “They put our names on the [aircraft] for a reason, because we take ownership and do our best to keep the aircraft in the best condition possible.”
The plane captains of the aircraft stencil their names on the side of their aircraft. This symbolizes the close connection each of them has with it. Every time an aircraft is operated, the names of those responsible are displayed on the side of the aircraft, so the crewmen share in its success.
Success is pertinent to the mission of VMM-162. The unit is responsible for the transport, insertion and extraction of all the units adjacent to it while operating aboard the USS Kearsarge.
The squadron supports the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), Battalion Landing Team 2/6 and Combat Logistics Battalion 26, and is slated to deploy with these elements later this year. Each of them relies on the squadron and provides it with missions. Those missions depend on the operability of aircraft, thus the night crew directly impacts the mission success of these units.
“If you took them out of the equation it would hinder the aircraft, flights and mission success,” said Heard. “It’s out of the question that they are necessary.”
In addition to their maintenance capabilities, the night crewmen provide support to operations on the flight-line. They conduct final maintenance checks and pre-flight inspections to ensure aircraft are ready to go when it’s time for an operation.
“We move [the aircraft] to the location for take-off, check the security and body of the aircraft, and communicate with the pilots via hand signals prior to departure,” said Shugart.
Hand signals are used on the flight-line to provide the pilots with visible information when they’re on-board an aircraft. This helps mitigate interference from noise or other sources that could otherwise inhibit the delivery of a message. The night crewmen help maintain communication between the flight-line and the pilots in this manner.
Once an aircraft has departed, the operation of the aircraft is in the hands of the pilots. The operability and functionality of the aircraft, however, still falls on the night crew that maintains it.
The performance of the night crew’s responsibilities on the aircraft can be the difference between the success and failure of an aircraft during operation.
“It’s on us to make sure the pilots and passengers are safe,” said Shugart. “We ensure everything is ready to go and make the safest calls possible for the [aircraft] and those on-board.”
Night crewmen aren’t regularly seen by those outside the flight-line due to their working hours, so interaction with them directly is limited, but passengers and pilots feel the impact of their work whenever they’re aboard an aircraft.
“They’re the heart and soul of the squadron,” said Capt. Thomas F. Gruber, a pilot with the squadron. “They work hard, for long hours and keep us mission ready.”
The night crew will continue to operate and maintain aircraft as the MEU, its supporting elements and Amphibious Squadron 4 prepare to deploy later this year.