Inside the Gates: Prepping UH-60s for transport on C-17s

Published: Feb. 3, 2021 at 7:49 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The relationship between helicopters and the military goes way back. They’ve been helping the armed forces get the job done since World War II. However, they wouldn’t help very much if they weren’t taken care of and they couldn’t transport them overseas safely.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Brianna Pritchard is one of the people who take care of UH-60s on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. She’s a mechanical instructor as well as a crew chief. That means she “knows all the insides and all the outsides” of the Blackhawks. Her job as a crew chief is to ride behind the cockpit and look out to the sides of the aircraft and make sure they don’t crash into anything.

“I’ve worked on pretty much all there is to work on with these helicopters,” she said. “I’m the person who trains all the young people.”

Pritchard explained that the ‘U’ in UH-60 stands for “utility.” These aircraft have many purposes such as transporting gear and troops, scouting missions, rescue missions, firefighting missions, they can also be mounted with weaponry and more.

“It’s more than just getting in the aircraft and flying around,” according to Pritchard. She said that her job requires accuracy and diligence, and she passes that emphasis to the people she trains. If she messes something up, the consequences could be fatal.

“As an instructor, sometimes the more that I learn about it and what can go wrong it does make me want to do my job better. Because it is nerve-wracking to know everything that can go wrong if you’re not paying attention and things are not done properly,” she said.

Even though they fly, they can’t make it overseas. Pritchard said they prep the Blackhawks for transport by folding up the rotor blades, as well as the tail of the helicopter if necessary.

They go aboard C-17s, the big gray jets that are a common sight above Anchorage. Pritchard said once she and other mechanics are done folding them up, more than one can fit on the C-17.

Before it gets anywhere near the jet, it goes through a joint inspection — an inspection involving the Air Force and branch using the UH-60 — with someone like USAF Technical Sergeant Joshua Paul Achkio.

Achkio described his job as “a deterrent” to keep “really bad things from happening.” He said something as simple as not chaining it down correctly could cause a fatal accident. Using his hand to paint a grim scenario, he described that if a roughly 20,000-pound helicopter slides to the back of the C-17 it could shift the weight and cause the jet to fall back to the earth, tail first.

Achkio said that exact situation is something he was shown in a training video when he was learning how to do his job. It stuck with him.

“When you’re hit stuff like that information, it’s meant to shock you, it’s meant to awe you, but it’s also meant for you to realize, ‘hey you’re not just a rubber stamp. You have to pay attention,’” he said.

So he makes sure he does everything he can to keep something like that from happening by doing his job step-by-step by the book.

“I go down the checklist; aircraft is clean, it’s not leaking any fluids, the batteries are all taped up, it’s not going to start any fires, so on and so on, until I am satisfied that it can safely go aboard an aircraft,” Achkio said.

These jobs may seem like behind-the-scenes stuff. However, if people like Pritchard and Achkio didn’t do their jobs with precision and diligence, the missions UH-60s help accomplish would never take off. They’re proud of their work, but they don’t let that go to their heads.

“I’m not trying to break my back by patting myself on it — indulging in self-importance. I realize I’m a member of the team. We’re all doing our part,” Achkio said.

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