For one thing, piloting a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter gets quite warm, as the plexiglas windows in the nose turns the cockpit into a huge greenhouse. Couple that with an ever-steady flow of missions, as well as diminishing air assets, and an aircrew can find themselves facing some rather interesting challenges.
That’s the situation the “Blackjacks” of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, who are operationally attached to the 2nd Battalion, 159th Attack Readiness Brigade, find themselves in, as they continue their current deployment at Contingency Operating Site Marez/Diamondback, in Mosul, Iraq.
While air assault missions are usually the norm for this Wheeler Army Air Field, Oahu, Hawaii-based company, they now find themselves
When the unit deployed to California’s National Training Center, they trained as part of “Lightning Strike,” an aerial reaction force. Missions included vehicle interdiction and dropping down a dismount team, which then set up a traffic control point, while the aircraft provided overhead cover.
Once they arrived in-country in February, however, the U.S. Forces mission had already dramatically shifted to stability operations.
Basically, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Parreco, a maintenance test pilot, “We’re now moving people around – we’re transporting personnel and taking leadership to key leader engagements. We get to spend a lot of time with our customers. With the Apache’s, they deal with a voice on the ground. For us, with our mission-set, we’re face-to-face with the guys we’re taking to the landing zone. We actually get to build up a customer relationship with them. They’re not just numbers, we actually work with them. It becomes much more personal.”
Staff Sgt. Leroy Fanguy, like many of the Blackjacks of 2-25, serves in numerous roles. From first sergeant to supply chief, this Houma, La., native does whatever it takes to ensure the success of their daily operations.
“It’s an adventure every day,” said Fanguy. “You never know what you’ll face. On any given day, we’ll work out any number of changes, from the receipt of our mission, to actual mission completion.”
“Our mission itself presents a huge challenge” said Parreco, of Denver, Colo. “You essentially have NCOs, enlisted and warrant officers wearing many hats – we fly, we address our maintenance issues and we support the battalion here. We have an E-6 doing the first sergeant’s job. We have different people actually doing quality control, product control, supply, and tech operations.”
The unit and its three Blackhawk helicopters fly countless missions each week, averaging four to six hours of daily flight time, or about 35 hours each week.
The company consists of 20 enlisted Soldiers and officers, with an average age of 25-28 years old. Fanguy is the unit’s elder statesman at 31 years of age. Half the crew chiefs have three to four years of military experience, while the officers have six to 10 years of military experience.
“Flexibility is definitely required, as it places a huge strain on our crew at times,” said Fanguy. “It’s not a huge obstacle, but it’s definitely a pain at times.”
With aircraft assets spread thin throughout Iraq, as Parreco puts it, the unit finds itself, “Acting autonomously in an austere theater.”
“Since we’re separated from our battalion, in order to survive, you need self-motivated individuals. Each of our Soldiers must complete their tasks implicitly, allowing us to be successful at our jobs,” he said.
“They know their tasks, day in and day out,” said crew chief, Spc. Christopher Rouse, a Colorado Springs, Colo., native. “They’re motivated. Even with 12-13 hour days, everyone is still happy, and everyone still has a smile on their face. We’re one big happy family.”
Family or not, it still takes a steady stream of maintenance and supplies to keep their birds in the air.
“One of our biggest challenges is establishing relationships with everybody,” said Rouse. “Rather than go to any one place, we may have to go to several places to find what we need.”
“Sometimes we have to go to the Apache battalion for things,” said Fanguy. “They have a completely different mission, a different mindset, from how we do things. They have a set mission, providing air support and getting six hours of flight time in.
“We have an ever-changing mission, with different situations and different times, We’ll often spend four to seven, or four to eight hour days flying all over Iraq. We can hit both the Syrian and Iranian borders, all in one day,” he said.
The company was previously deployed at FOB Speicher and Kirkuk, from July 2006 to Oct. 2007, and crewmembers gained a lot of practical experience from that deployment. However, when they began preparations for their current trip, a lot of that experience had departed, with many of the remaining Soldiers having to learn new skill sets.
Besides troop transportation, the unit has flown the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints cheerleaders, Ultimate Fighting Championships fighters and the Zac Brown band. They also transported rock musician Kid Rock and his band, who actually signed the engine cowling for aircraft 714.
“We have a great job and it can be a bit taxing at times, but where else are you allowed to play with an $8 million piece of equipment every day? It’s the Cadillac of aircraft,” said Parreco.