News | April 25, 2016

A bird’s eye view from a Blackhawk Helicopter

By Commentary by Erik Wetterhall, DLA Aviation Customer Operations Directorate DLA Aviation Public Affairs

In February 2014, I began supporting the UH-60 Blackhawk Program Management Office (PMO), transitioning from the OH-58 Kiowa, where I had the honor of being the first Kiowa customer logistics site specialist forward deployed with Defense Logistics Agency Aviation at Huntsville, Alabama.

From the start of my time in Alabama in 2009, our rotary wing aircraft customers at Army Aviation and Missile Command and within the Program Management Office took me under their “blades.” I’ve learned an incredible amount being forward, and each day, I learn a little more.  I’ve built collaborative relationships with other employees and customers, who are all in it for the same reason - to serve our warfighters.

Like the blessings before it, this new position has been a blessing. Many of my new Blackhawk customers are former pilots who share stories with me of their battlefield experiences and sacrifices. In supporting our Army customers, I work directly with deployed units, National Guard units, AMCOM item managers and the project office responsible for readiness and fleet management.

Little did I know that I would be offered the opportunity of a lifetime earlier this month when I met our Georgia National Guard customers in person, in an expeditious way!

The AMCOM Safety Office sent out an Aviation Safety Action Message to Army units and the UH-60 community to check their aircraft for issues and report back to them. The Georgia National Guard stationed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, in Marietta, Georgia, found an issue regarding UH-60 M model fuel cells that required an engineer and program management office subject matter experts to look at the issue at their airbase.

The PMO’s assigned pilot needed to log some flight hours and asked several of us on the team if we would like to go with him to Georgia, as DLA manages the helicopter’s fuel cells.   Other team members included an Army engineer and SMEs from the UH-60M PMO.

My supervisor and chain of command supported the visit and the next day the team was at the Redstone Army Airfield on Redstone Army Arsenal, Alabama listening to a safety briefing from the flight crew chief.

He gave us earplugs and let us know what to expect and do if something unexpected happened. Yikes! We also learned how to approach the aircraft from the side to prevent being hit by the blades (as they're lower at the front) and so the pilot and co-pilot could see us.

When it was time to go out to the aircraft, I looked out the glass door before exiting and saw a Blackhawk come up over the small hill of the airfield to land and pick us up - blades spinning!

I sat in the back passenger area, next to the window, with my coworkers. I looked around the aircraft and it was shaking some, but not bad.  Taking off did not feel bad, but boy did the earth quickly separate away from the helicopter!  As it climbed, the pilot turned in the air to go east, towards Marietta. We kept a steady altitude of less than 14,000 feet with a speed of about 140 knots.  It seemed faster and similar to the height of a commercial airplane coming in for a landing - you know that point when you can start seeing the houses around the airport.

I noticed the DLA national stock number on the seats and other part as I looked around and through the mesh separating the areas of the helicopter all the way to the front. The pilot told me later for the A/L models, a map has to be used for navigation, probably also supplied by DLA.   It sounded to me like trying to find a road on a map while driving!

It was an interesting ride, looking out over eastern Alabama land as it went by. You could see the mansions on Monte Sano, I saw my church in Jones Valley and the shopping center I go to sometimes. Surprisingly, there was some type of house or farm almost all the way to the Atlanta Metro area with few exceptions of forest area, valley-like terrain - rugged, but with small ridges and trees. Then behold, Lake Guntersville, what a site! It was really neat to see and I thought it was a river at first.

Passed the lake, it was somewhat barren as we flew into Georgia until approaching the suburbs. As we got closer to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, the pilot came down for the landing and I thought there would be a thud like a commercial plane, but no, it was a smooth, light landing and then roll, as the Blackhawk has wheels unlike the Kiowa that has skids. The flight felt like a ride in a car in many ways with a few shakes, but much louder.  
Looking back on this, my first helicopter ride, my excitement flowed like the winds carrying us to Georgia. The flight time was about an hour and five to ten minutes and, like commercial flights from Huntsville to Atlanta, you take off at the same time you land because of the time difference.

After the helicopter blades stopped, we got out in front of the hanger and went to the Guard offices to talk about the fuel cell issue. Next, we visited the hanger where the aircraft are worked on, and saw the fuel cells themselves sitting out waiting for us to address the potential concerns. They are bigger than I thought. They were like fuel bladders with hard fabric-like plastic material. Nearby, I noticed the crate we shipped the fuel cells in from Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

At AMCOM and in the Army, the term AOG means aircraft on the ground or downed aircraft. I got to look inside of the AOG Blackhawk M model aircraft in the hanger and saw where the fuel cells go. I also got to look at the T-700 engines that were being worked on in another part of the hanger. Our pilot explained to me how the engine works, which was really interesting.

By then, it was time for an early lunch. It's tough to say being an Alabamian, but Georgia BBQ gave Bama a run for their money! It was a neat restaurant, but the respect for our pilot, who was in his military pilot suit, was really touching. After lunch, we boarded the helicopter for our flight back. We made it back to the office by 1:30 p.m. and it was neat to say I just had lunch in Georgia!

However, the biggest highlight was the honor of being invited to go and included as part of the team. I know our forward presence team has come a long way in building trust with our customers since Base Realignment and Closure Law was passed in 2005.  We have provided support through two wars, epidemics, and natural disasters. There have been difficult times, but it feels great to be part of the overall team, helping others, and our warfighters at home and abroad.

The entire experience can be summed up as I was blessed to have had the chance to go and it was a highlight of my 14-year career so far.

(Editor’s note:  is a customer logistics site specialist in the Customer Operations Directorate at DLA Aviation at Huntsville, Alabama.)