Chinook crew pulls long nights to keep birds flying in Puerto Rico
The maintenance team from the Army's 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment has been working nonstop in Puerto Rico since they flew in from Fort Bliss, Texas, Oct. 9. The crew maintains six CH-47 Chinook helicopters that deliver humanitarian supplies daily to some of the hardest-hit and most remote areas of Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
"At first, night shift was running from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., sometimes 2 or 3 a.m.," said Army Sgt. Jason Gonsalves, a CH-47 helicopter repairer. "We were working long days, only stopping to take a break for thirty minutes."
When the unit arrived, the maintenance team had to reassemble the Chinooks, which they had only recently disassembled to fit on C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft for the trip from Texas, Gonsalves said.
In order for two Chinook helicopters to fit aboard a C-5, their rotor systems and housings must be detached and disassembled.
The maintainers had the helicopters back together and ready to fly within 48 hours, said Army Pfc. Zachariah Ingram, a CH-47 helicopter repairer.
In addition to regularly scheduled maintenance, the crew has to be vigilant for other problems that come with the operating environment. For example, the salt air and humidity inherent with operating in tropical environments can lead to corrosion, Gonsalves said.
When not working on the helicopters, the maintainers volunteer to help with the humanitarian airlift.
"I've gone on a flight to help pass out supplies and talk to the populace," said Army Spc. Juan Betancourt, a CH-47 maintainer.
Betancourt, a native Spanish speaker, uses his skills to help other soldiers communicate with the island's residents.
"There was a younger girl, maybe 12 or 13, who came up and gave me a hug and said 'Thank you,'" Betancourt said. "It was heartwarming."
The work of the maintenance crews has not gone unnoticed.
"Our maintainers have done a phenomenal job keeping the Chinooks ... up and running at the mission-capable status that we need to continue to achieve missions that are requested of us and to be on standby for those that are not," Chung said. "It's not a small task and it's not a small feat."