Written by Sgt. Leejay Lockhart
101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs
Fort Campbell, KY – Soldiers from the 584th Support Maintenance Company, 129th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, conducted Air Assault operations training September 3rd, at Fort Campbell, KY.
The unit worked with aviators from Company B, 6th Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Abn. Div., during the training.The company provides maintenance support for vehicles, weapons and many other types of equipment. By using Air Assault capabilities, the company is able to rapidly support units over a large area of operations and across even the most difficult terrain.
This training focused on honing the skills necessary to sling load three different pieces of equipment the company commonly uses to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to prepare the Soldiers for conducting Air Assault missions in the future.
“We had three different lanes set up: water buffalo, 1151 Humvee and a generator,” said Sgt. Michael Brown, a maintenance and recovery section leader for the 584th SMC. Soldiers with Air Assault experience demonstrated how to prepare the equipment for the helicopter to lift it. They also went over hand and arm signals used by Soldiers on the ground to communicate with the aircraft, he said.
Readying the equipment involves attaching a sling kit to the equipment in a process called rigging, which will allow Soldiers to hook it to a hovering helicopter and suspend it during flight. Additionally, Soldiers must secure the equipment so it remains undamaged during flight. Finally, they inspect the rigging.
“The aircraft came in around [1:00pm], and we went straight into Air Assault operations where each Soldiers got to get in hands on, doing ground guiding or actually hooking up to the CH-47,” said Brown, a native of Jump-Off, Tennessee.
When the helicopter arrived at the pickup zone on Campbell Army Airfield, Brown performed one of his most important duties during the operation – the joint inspection of the equipment with part of the flight crew. This critical step keeps Soldiers safe both on the ground and in the helicopter, and it protects equipment from damage.
The crew looks for details like ensuring the windshield is taped, the sling legs aren’t crossed, the proper link count is used, vehicle fuel levels are correct and that the transmissions and other items are in the proper position, said Brown.
Improper weight distribution or other deficiencies could cause the helicopter to have to release the equipment it’s lifting, which is called cutting sling load. Depending on the height of the aircraft at the time, cutting sling load could endanger troops.
Besides using the capabilities of Air Assault qualified Soldiers, the 584th SMC also leveraged the combat experience of leaders like Knowlton who served as the air operations officer with the 101st Sustainment Brigade during its most recent deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“My combat experiences highlighted the importance of sling load operations in the forward AO [Area of Operations],” said Knowlton, a native of Winder, Georgia. Being able to explain the importance of the training using real world examples increased the enthusiasm and drive to succeed for all of those involved in the operation.
“With the continuous reduction in FOBs [Forward Operating Bases] and Soldiers in Afghanistan, or a new theater where the support infrastructure may not yet be established, sling load operations are the lifeline for outlying units and allow them to quickly receive supplies that they need,” said Knowlton. “The training the Soldiers receive here at Fort Campbell completely prepares them to hit the ground running.”
To successfully execute tough, realistic training and increase the unit’s proficiency of a skill requires preparation. Brown said that Soldiers began preparing for this mission during Air Assault School, including one of Brown’s own subordinates, Pvt. Hanif Lewis, an allied trade specialist with the 584th SMC.
“He just came out of Air Assault School a couple of weeks ago,” said Brown. During the operation, Brown supervised Lewis as he ground guided the helicopter. “I stood out there with him; he needed very minimal help. He’s a brand new Soldier – picked it right up and ran with it.”
“The school itself helped pretty much with everything,” said Lewis, a native of Columbia, South Carolina. “All the training came in handy. It helped and basically everything they showed us there we basically used here.”
“There are weeks of prior planning with supporting units and training at the company level to make sure that the Soldiers are prepared to execute the training quickly and safely to maximize the time with assets such as aircraft,” said Knowlton. “Many of the Soldiers were not able to actually hook up to aircraft at school due to weather or maintenance issues preventing the aircraft being available on the days their training occurred. Having the opportunity to actually hook up to a CH-47 gives them the confidence that they need to be able to conduct sling load operations in any environment at a moment’s notice.”
However, Knowlton said during preparation the unit must still plan to provide maintenance support, and it cannot fail in its requirements to meet other competing obligations. The preparations must also build in multiple opportunities for Soldiers to get a chance to participate in the training.
The unit’s successful preparations allowed the 584th SMC to maximize their allocated time with the helicopter. As it moved from lane to lane, each iteration helped Soldiers develop proficiency conducting sling loads. Brown added the training allowed Soldiers to master the intricacies of sling loading different pieces of equipment.
Although all three pieces of equipment use similar sling legs, chains and breakaways during the rigging process, he said each piece of equipment has a unique rigging configuration.
“Training is only relevant when it’s realistic,” said Brown. “… until the Soldiers are actually out there with the aircraft doing the hand and arm signals, they’ve got the rotor wash, they actually got the equipment in front of them and it’s actually happening, it’s not really realistic.”
“The only way to maintain the Air Assault capabilities is to practice them,” said Knowlton, who felt the training was a huge success. “The Soldiers were excited to be there and actually apply the skills that they learned at Air Assault School.”