Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A busier than usual drill weekend

We had a long drill this last weekend, partially because it was our aerial gunnery drill out at Gila Bend and partly because we're preparing for an upcoming admin inspection.  As a result we had a four and a half day drill this month.  This half day bit is arguably a waste of time since all it really does is ensure that everyone is tired at the start of the first full day of training, but the powers that be seem to love the illusion of progress.  On Thursday, however, we managed several training flights, inspection preparation and prepared all the equipment for Fridays trip to the range.  Unlike past gunnery quals this time we did not stay out at Gila Bend.  Since we're only a 30 minute flight from there it worked well for us, and hopefully we'll do it that way again next time.  Friday was scheduled for the crews that were fully qualified in day, night and NVG operations.  This made for a fairly busy afternoon and evening, but we still managed to get everything wrapped up by 10:00pm.  Saturday we came back out first thing in the morning to take care of the crew members that were not yet Night/NVG qualified and also ran some pilots and VIP's through the course on the guns.  Pilots don't get to shoot the machine guns very often, so it's nice for them to get the chance.  It also helps us as they get a better feel for the limitations involved.  While we had the range scheduled for well into the evening and Sunday during the day in case we had some problem, we ended finishing up before noon on Saturday.  Everyone gets excited about drawing 30,000 rounds of ammo, but with four helicopters that's actually only about 10 minutes at the cyclic rate of fire.

If you ain't shootin', yer loadin'...

While were were fueling at one point on Saturday the Maintenance Officer called with an interesting proposal:  Between us and the Med Det we have 12 helicopters assigned, and all of them were up.  He suggested we take the opportunity to do a 12 ship formation as a salute to the maintenance troops down to the Best Warrior competition at Florence Military Reservation on Sunday.  While the competition would be wrapped up by the time we got there (we're not allowed to fly before noon on Sunday), the brigade command staff would still be there.  Anyone who has ever been involved in military aviation knows how rare it is that they have 100% of the assigned airframes available - it just does't happen very often.  We had done 10 ships flying for deployments, but no one could recall a 12 ship.  We jumped on it.

I'm in the fifth one from the top, Chalk 5
Our senior instructor pilots started doing the mission planning, and by Sunday morning we were planned and approved and having our formation briefing.  Since we can only launch four at a time from our facility, the plan was to launch three flights of four and lager at the nearby airfield at Superior, a dirt strip that gets little use.  From there we would fly down to Florence.  By 12:30 we had as many maintenance and support company people loaded in the helicopters as we could carry and were preparing for a 1:00 launch.  Things were running smoothly until Chalk 11 reported a sheared starter shaft.  There was no way it was going to be able to launch with us.  Our remaining maintainers weren't going to take this lying down however, and requested approval to swap the starter and have Chalk 11 join up with us on the way to Florence.  The mission commander approved that immediately and we proceeded with the mission.

We reached Superior as scheduled, and were updated on the status of Chalk 11.  The starter replacement was completed and they were doing the operational check.  They predicted launch in about 10 minutes so it was decided we would delay at Superior for 5 minutes so they would join up with us in our practice area near Williams/Gateway airport (the old Williams AFB for you wing wipers out there...)

It all came together, we joined up without incident and completed the mission. Returning to base the tower at Sky Harbor could be heard chuckling as he granted permission for the flight of 12 through Phoenix airspace.  During our debrief one of the crew chief was informed by his parents who were at a MLB spring training game that they put us up on the jumbo-tron as we flew by, and sent us an phone picture of us passing by.

When all was said and done several of us were talking about it and couldn't decide what was more impressive - that we pulled off a 12 ship formation flight, or the fact that the whole mission was put together in less than 12 hours.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Crypto - a Sea Story

Back in the day my first military occupation was Avionics Technician (AT) in the Navy.  I was assigned to the Airborne Early Warning community working on E-2B aircraft.  A fun and sometimes challenging aircraft to work on, it had some pretty slick electronics in an electron tube kind of way.  Among the many things we were responsible for was entering the crypto codes in the various radios.  This was done with a "key" about four inches wide by an inch and a half thick and maybe a foot long.  While probably long ago declassified, I'll play it safe with the descriptions other than to say the process was to take the daily code info in paper form and enter it in the key every morning.  The key was then used to transfer the code to the aircraft radios before the first flight of the day.  In theory the codes could be kept in the aircraft all day, but frequently an aircraft would need to be rekeyed in between flights.  Being communications codes they were designed to be easily erased (zeroed, to use the technical term) and frequent did so on their own.

A Grumman E-2B Hawkeye of carrier airborne early-warning squadron VAW-113 Black EaglesCarrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14), after landing on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CV-43) in 1979. The E-2B BuNo. 150534 was one of 49 E-2A upgraded to the E-2B-standard. It was transferred to VAW-115, CVW-5, on the USS Midway (CV-41) as "NF-602" in Dec 1979. (Public Domain photograph via Wikipedia)

Since we were responsible for said gear, all AT's in the squadron had Secret clearances and we had an appropriate safe in the shop where the keys were kept.  The code information was kept by the security officer, a pilot who was assigned the position as a collateral duty.  He was responsible for making sure all the keys were coded in advance of the first launch of the day.  Some coded the keys themselves, others would deliver the codes and the AT shop would take care of it.  This system worked well until one of our young security officers decided that since our normal zero dark thirty launches caused him to miss too much of his beauty sleep, the AT shop had an approved security container and the necessary clearances and skills... Why not drop off the monthly code listing and have the AT's take care of it since they were already up?

Exhibit in the National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Maryland, USA. All items in this museum are unclassified; items created by the United States Government are not subject to copyright restrictions.

This probably seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, but in describing his plan to us he was just a little too gleeful about being able to sleep in.  Being a Naval Officer, we didn't feel it was appropriate to disagree with his plan, but were somewhat put out by it.  But what are you going to do?  We went ahead and entered the codes and then put each days code sheet back in the safe.  We knew that accountability of classified material was no joke, and each of those sheets would need to be turned in to the appropriate place at the end of the month.

Come the end of the month our security officer strolled in one afternoon (we hadn't seen him before noon since he offloaded his early morning duties on us) and requested the old code sheets.  Where upon yours truly gave him the innocent look only an E-4 can pull off and said, "What code sheets, sir?"  Did I mention that he did not have the combination to our security container?  Pity, that. After it became clear that I was going to continue to be professionally ignorant, he retreated and tried later with our shop supervisor.  It turns out our shop boss had the same opinion of apparently lazy junior officers that we did, and provided no further assistance.  We kept this up for a couple of days, just to get his stress level up.  That peaked about the time we asked, "Weren't those sheets supposed to be destroyed after use?"  That caused him to develop a rather greenish tint.  Our division officer was amused by the whole thing.  He couldn't keep a straight face when he told us the the security officer went to our Commander to complain, only to be told, "It looks like the AT's have you over a barrel, doesn't it?"

After a few days of this our division officer suggested that it was time to return the codes before it became an official problem at the crypto shop, so we promptly called our security officer and let him know we "found" the sheets in question if he would care to pick them up.  It seems he wasn't doing anything at the moment and came immediately.

The next morning he delivered the appropriate code sheet the usual two hours before the first launch, and emphasized that if we had any problems to contact him day or night, and he would be there promptly.

In the Navy, it is normally the job of the Chief Petty Officers (E-7 to E-9) to train junior officers, but every now and the it becomes a shop project.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Retirement Flight

UH-60 of C/1-159 Det 1 (Dust Off)
In addition to the Attack and Assault Helicopter Battalions in the state, we have a Med Det assigned to our facility as well.  This weekend one of their pilots took his last flight prior to retiring.  Here he is taxiing in after the flight.  The fire department provided the water salute, a nice touch.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Weekend in the Field

One of our UH-60's arriving to our field LZ
Being an aviation unit, our weekend drills are normally conducted from our home station.  This makes sense since we can access any kind of terrain we need for training purposes easily, and why waste time moving to a different location?  One of the exceptions to this rule is when we're doing gunnery training.  This weekend we relocated to the Florence Military Reservation in Arizona where our small arms ranges are located.  We did our annual marksmanship qualifications, some training in Army field tasks, and the ground fire stages of our aerial gunnery qualifications.  This allows us to get the new crew chiefs up to speed on the M-240H machine guns without the noise and movement normal to flight.  In March we'll be doing our actual aerial gunnery training and qualification, which will be another field drill.  Gunnery is probably the most fun of the tasks we get to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

State Muster

An extreme case of parking in multiple spots.  Setting up our display in the morning.
This weekend Arizona had a state wide National Guard Muster at the Sun Devil Stadium on Arizona State University's campus.  Never missing the opportunity for a dog and pony show, we flew a helicopter in for a static display along with representative samples of other military equipment.  I spent the day with our crew showing off the Blackhawk to anyone interested.  I actually enjoy doing static displays once in a while as people who have never seen a helicopter up close get a chance to take a look and ask questions.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fly By

Marine AH-1 Cobras
This morning I heard the characteristic Huey thumping sound outside, and of course had to investigate.  It was a couple of Marine AH-1 Cobras, probably from MCAS Yuma.  When Bell made the Cobra, they used a lot of the UH-1 design to work from.  It could be said they took a Huey and shaved the fuselage down to 36" wide and started putting armament on it.  That would be a simplification, but isn't too far off the mark.  The Army retired the Cobra and Huey many years ago for the Apache and Blackhawk, but the Marines have stuck with it, with Bell still updated the designs.  I've always had a soft spot for the Cobra.

(Note:  It just struck me how much technology has changed since the Cobra was introduced.  I heard these birds, grabbed my camera and photographed them, downloaded, selected and post processed the image and posted it on the blog.  As I write this, they're probably still airborne.)