By Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
National Guard Bureau
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait (7/17/2007) â€“ A unique National Guard maintenance task force keeps Army helicopters flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The National Guard has four Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depots (AVCRADs) in the United States. Based in California, Connecticut, Mississippi and Missouri, each serves a region of the country. Task Force AVCRAD is comprised of personnel from all four of them as well as other individuals.
Think of an AVCRAD as a car dealership's service center, except it services Army aviation assets. The AVCRADs maintain helicopters, including AH-64 Apaches, UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks and OH-58 Kiowas.
During Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the AVCRADs have taken turns deploying so that maintenance can be performed close to the front lines.
"All the AVCRADs have been deployed," said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Allen. "So they came up with Task Force AVCRAD." Allen is the noncommissioned officer in charge of maintenance for the task force.
Task Force AVCRAD is a one-of-a-kind rotation composed entirely of National Guardmembers and civilian contractors. Instead of pulling one of the regional AVCRADsÂ from the U.S., Task Force AVCRAD consists of qualified volunteers from across the country.
The task force's approximately 220 members are drawn from the regional AVCRADs and from Maryland's Aviation Depot Maintenance Roundout Unit, which serves as an administrative headquarters for the AVCRADs, and from Kentucky's Aviation Intermediate Maintenance unit, supplemented with Soldiers from the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.
The formation of the task force meant no specific AVCRAD had to be deployed, and it gave the AVCRADs four years at home between deployments.
"The mission is to perform maintenance on aircraft components to make sure that the rotary-wing fleet is up and ready to fly," said Lt. Col. Clifford Hopkins, a Maryland Guardsman serving as the task force's executive officer. "Being able to perform this mission with National Guard Soldiers saves a lot of time, because we're forward-deployed.Â Instead of the components going all the way back to the States, we can repair these parts right here and get them back to the warfighter in a timely manner. It's an outstanding mission: We're making a difference, and we're adding value to the warfight."
Task Force AVCRAD maintains Army National Guard, Regular Army and Army Reserve aviation assets theater-wide.
"The advantage of doing it in-theater is the quicker turnaround to get the components back to the aircraft, get them up there for the warfighter mission," Allen said.
The team's skills include servicing avionics, rotors and blades, engines, props and search lights. They stock replacement parts. A machine shop makes parts and tools. The AVCRAD has equipment that allows rebuilt engines to be thoroughly tested.
"We can simulate that engine running at full power under a full load on a flying aircraft so that when we're finished with it we can put it back in the inventory system guaranteed that it meets all standards and that it can be put back on an aircraft to run reliably," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Gray, assistant shop supervisor.
Some of the AVCRAD's Citizen-Soldiers are forward deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide even closer service.
"Any unit anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq can take any number of components off a helo, from a rotor blade to instrumentation to the engine, the tail rotor, wheels," Gray explained. "We don't work for any one aviation unit. We work for every aviation unit in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Some of the work is routine maintenance. Some is created because of sand and bullets.
Wind-blown sand that gets in the eyes, ears, nose and mouth is irritating. In helicopter engines it's a safety hazard. Parts arrive at the AVCRAD with a glass coating â€“ sand transformed by engine heat. Soldiers use an ultrasonic cleaner to loosen the glass coating. They also must clean sand from electrical parts.
"We have a few items that come in with bullet holes," Allen said.
"A lot of us â€¦ would like to do more," Gray said. "I wish I could do more."
Like many Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen who are not on the frontlines but who still hold essential jobs, Task Force AVCRAD members realize that, frustrating as it may be to be one step removed from the warfight, they are vital to it.
"I'm not the hero," joked Sgt. Dennis Cantrell, deployed from the Kentucky National Guard. "I'm the little geek that makes sure the hero's helicopter picks him up."