Kentucky Army Aviation helps keep helicopters in air across country

Story and photos by Sgt. Scott Raymond, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

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A Soldier with Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 376th Aviation works to repair a OH-58 helicopter at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Frankfort, Ky., Sept. 18, 2012. The Kentucky Guard has become the maintenance hub for OH-58 repairs for all of the National Guard. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — It is often thought that a warrant officer in an Army Aviation unit is only a pilot.  That is certainly not always the case.  The aviation field also demands that experts are on hand as maintenance technicians to ensure that those pilots have a working aircraft to fly.

In the Kentucky National Guard some aviation warrant officers are not only keeping Kentucky Guardsmen in the air, but they’re also working to keep pilots in quality aircraft nationwide.

Chief Warrant Officer Three Jay Calcaterra, an aircraft maintenance supervisor for the 351st Aviation Support Battalion works daily at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Frankfort, Ky.  He confirmed that not everyone in the hangar is a pilot, calling himself and other maintenance supervisors, “the walking warrants.”

“We determine which aircraft fly, how long they fly and what maintenance is required after they fly it,” he said.

Calcaterra said they have an extremely important job in the hangar, and that is to manage aircraft and the people who work on aircraft.

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Spc. Tim Amyx with Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 376th Aviation, works on a OH-58 helicopter at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Frankfort, Ky., Sept. 18, 2012. Because of the increase in maintenance requests, some Soldiers were brought on full time to help handle the workload. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

The Kentucky Guard’s fleet of UH-60 Blackhawks and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, and their operational readiness is the responsibility of Calcaterra and Chief Warrant Officer Two Ryan Thompson.

They said it takes a seasoned expert to meet the demands of what they are asked to do, but in referring to their warrant officer training, they rely on their abilities and the proficiencies of their staff to provide that expertise and keep Kentucky aircraft in the skies.

In 2011, the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., was looking for a solution for the maintenance of all OH-58s flown by the Guard.  They needed a hub where the aircraft could be properly and efficiently maintained to keep them flying.  NGB looked to a state with a solid history of excellence in aviation.

“It’s because of our reputation, our work ethic and our operational readiness rates that we were asked to do this,” said Thompson.  “Everyone knows we are always willing to step up and support the mission of NGB.”

With the amount of flight hours being put on a diminishing fleet of OH-58s nationally, NGB asked Kentucky to become the center though which all maintenance issues would stream.  Kentucky’s Army Aviation originally only had four OH-58s of their own, but now they were asked to care for a lot more.  Regardless of their home assignment, helicopters with any issue would be flown or transported to Frankfort to go through Thompson’s “phase”.

Thompson said the facility would normally put six helicopters through maintenance phases each year.  Since February 2012, they have received, tested, worked on, and put back into service 23 OH-58s, across the country.  That’s nearly a 400 percent increase and the year isn’t over yet.

He said Kentucky has worked with 16 different states in repairing their helicopters, transferring the aircraft back and forth to as far away as Arizona and Hawaii.

A phase begins with a test flight, if possible, to determine the faults or discrepancies, anything from broken radios to weak engines.  The aircraft would then be disassembled from the nose to the tail and those problem areas would be fixed and required inspections completed.  Upon its reassembly, the helicopter would be released for test flights to assure the problems were resolved, resulting in an “almost new” aircraft.

“I would never send out something that I wouldn’t give my own Soldiers,” said Thompson.

According to Thompson, the Kentucky Guard flies more hours in OH-58s than any other state.  Thousands of hours of flight-time are given annually to support the state’s counter-drug program and in-state unit training missions.

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Soldiers at the Army Aviation Support Facility prepare for a test flight in a OH-58 helicopter in Frankfort, Ky., Sept. 24, 2012. The Kentucky Guard provides maintenance support to all OH-58s in the National Guard. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Scott Raymond)

In addition to operations in the Commonwealth, OH-58s repaired by the Kentucky Guard are transferred to the U.S. State Department as well as flown in support of the Southwest border mission, Operation Guardian Eye.

Calcaterra, Thompson and the Soldiers in the hangars in Frankfort manage the maintenance of 75 percent of all OH-58s flying in the National Guard.  Thompson said it’s a fine example of the Kentucky Guard preparing for and meeting the needs of the Guard as a whole.

Thompson believes the mission will last as long as OH-58s are flying for the Guard.  In the meantime, Kentucky will remain nationally, a proven maintenance hub as well as an OH-58 parts hub.

The increased workload has benefitted some Soldiers with full-time work, which the warrants said creates an invaluable amount of experience for young aircraft mechanics.   Thompson estimates that his Soldiers are getting as much hands-on training in two-weeks as some traditional Guardsmen serving on weekends would get in 15 years.  In addition to the new airframes coming through, the experience for these Soldiers is the biggest gain of this mission said Thompson.

The warrants both said they couldn’t have done it without the support of Kentucky National Guard leadership.  Thompson said Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, Kentucky’s Adjutant General and Col. Michael Ferguson, 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade Commander, agreed to take on the mission and have consistently backed the mechanics’ efforts while promoting the quality work done by Kentucky Guardsmen.

“We take pride in what we do here,” Thompson said. “We have the experience and know-how to pull this off.”

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours, but we don’t have a reduction in our capabilities. This has been a whirlwind success.”

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