The Tale of Two Beanies

BY AE2 CHRISTOPHER HILL, HSM-74

Seaman Joseph Kelley conducts maintenance on the tail rotor of an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Christopher A. Michaels)

During month three of a seven-month deployment, day-to-day maintenance and flying had the days running together. August 21 was a day, however, I will never forget. Vixen 703 had a 1:45 a.m. launch in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and it was maintenance’s job to give the pilots the best helicopter possible on time. It was 11:30 p.m. and we had finished pulling the bird out to the maintenance line to spread. We unfolded the tail and performed the blade spread as we always had. The only difference was the black blade lockpin was engaging and retracting continuously and all the pitch lockpins were still engaged. The blade lockpins drive in to ensure the blade is locked and the pitch lockpins drive out to allow the blades to make pitch adjustments. The system is meant to ensure the integrity of the rotor system prior to and in flight.

As a proud naval aviation maintainer, I know the importance of meeting the flight schedule. I grabbed an IETMS and a toolbox, and with a great sense of urgency, sprang into action. Looking at the time, I knew that I would have to act expeditiously. Flight quarters would be set at 1:15 a.m. and somehow it was midnight already. I would have to push myself more than usual to meet the mission. Luckily, shift change was going on simultaneously so my counterparts were there to lend assistance. We feverishly began to troubleshoot and step after step, produced no results. We spent over an hour and a half making minor progress just to come up short every time. Launch time had come and gone; and now, the pilots were scratching their heads and asking questions. With the flight schedule in jeopardy, maintenance control made the call to go to the spare. This is not what a maintainer wants to hear.

During most days, this call would have been simple enough, and would have only taken an hour. It just happened this was not most days. The hangar door for our second aircraft was broken and the rapid securing device (RSD) had a nitrogen leak. This door required three shop technicians and took 30 minutes to open. We would have to charge the RSD system to traverse, which can further delay launch. Additionally, we would still have to find a way to fold 703 and get it off deck. As the rest of the crew began to prep 710 for flight, they discovered the rotor head accumulator required servicing. It was clear that the night was rapidly turning into the worst-case scenario two down aircraft and a busted flight schedule.

Feeling the pressure of everything that was going on, I told maintenance it would be faster to remove the main rotor de-ice distributor (aka beanie) from 710 and temporarily use it on 703 while troubleshooting continued on the door. I was given the go-ahead, and after installing the distributor, 703’s black blade lockpins worked, pitch locks retracted, and the problem was fixed! The crew stopped working on 710 and began the process of closing the door, and finishing 703’s preflight checks for the flight schedule. I got down off the helicopter with the part in hand, gathered my tools for a proper “All tools accounted for, and was on my way to turn the repairable part into supply. Finally, at 2:50 a.m., flight quarters were set and the crew con-ducted a preflight of the head and launched at 3:30 a.m.

Now this sounds like a story of great perseverance by the book maintenance in the face of adversity. Not so. Let us now talk about how this impressive maintenance feat took a turn for the worst into a maintenance catastrophe. While on my way to turn in the beanie I had limited space to get in the hangar. I could not go through the hangar door, as they were still attempting to close it, so the only option was the hatch next to it. The ship’s technicians were working on closing the hangar door allowing me a sliver of room to sneak by. The tools filled my hands, so instinctively and foolishly, I set the beanie down on a ready service locker outside of the hangar bay hatch. This locker just so happened to be by the side of the ship. After going in and out of the hangar a few times, I realized the beanie was missing from my inventory. Once it hit me where I thought I had left it, the search began. After 12 long hours with no distributor to be found, it was concluded the part fell over the side, off the ship, and down to Davey Jones’ locker. Only later did I find out this part cost approximately $100,000.

So what did I learn through this ordeal? First, sometimes during a high-stress evolution, it is important to take a moment to gather and regroup. Consider the operational risk management of the situation. Perceived pressure can cause you to make mistakes and skip critical steps jeopardizing the safety of the aircraft and crew. If the flight schedule does not happen on time every time, it is acceptable. Rushing procedures and not properly stowing gear is not. It has the potential to waste money and cost lives. Additionally, you must ask yourself, what is different today? We had the hangar, the RSD, and several parts of two aircraft requiring maintenance all at the same time. Next time, I will recognize this as a high-risk evolution and help my shipmates understand the potential risks. If the flight schedule starts 10 minutes late because we did procedures properly, I will be able to sleep just fine. When your adrenaline is going, it is easy to lose sight of the situation and make a careless mistake. Beware the tale of the two beanies!