JALALABAD, Afghanistan – A young instructor with barely five years in the Army is strapped to his jump seat amid the thunderous roar and vibration of a Black Hawk helicopter, eyes glued to his even younger student. Army Private 1st Class Craig Lewis has his head out the window, watching the ground and holding his smoke grenade in a death grip as he circles around and around a bomb crater in the sand far below.
Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon, Task Force Poseidon Public Affairs
“See how even simple tasks become complicated with all your responsibilities up here?” crackled U.S. Army Spec. Jared Yoakam over the headset. “All you have to do is drop that grenade out the window. It’s as simple as that.”
Yoakam is teaching Lewis, of Crescent City, Calif., to become a Black Hawk Crew Chief, and when you’re responsible for everything in the helicopter to include the cockpit, rotors, people and equipment, nothing is simple.
Lewis is a Black Hawk mechanic assigned to Task Force Saber, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, near Jalalabad, Afghanistan. He’s under some serious stress, trying to do everything right and earn a job that gets him out of the repair hangar and into the gunner’s seat. It’s where he’ll not only get to be one of two “big bosses” in the helicopter, but get to see much more of the Afghan countryside than what lies just outside the base.
A Black Hawk crew chief is known to just about everyone as the man (or woman) in control of the helicopter. They’re so important, their names used to be stencilled in black paint on the side of the bird. The Army’s moved away from that tradition in the past few years, but the crew chief’s importance hasn’t diminished.
When passengers climb in, the crew chief says who goes in what seat, where the cargo goes, and has the final say in just about everything related to the trip.
Landing a Black Hawk amidst trees, other helicopters and vehicles is a little like trying to parallel-park an 18-wheeler without rear-view mirrors in high winds. It’s more than a little difficult without help, so Lewis is becoming the eyes and ears for the pilots, who have a field-of-view pretty much limited to what they can see out of the cockpit windows. That leaves 53 feet of helicopter they can’t see, which is about the same length as a large semi-trailer.
Even though he’s got a mentor to guide him, Lewis, 19, has just found himself responsible for a machine where each of the four rotor blades costs more than $200,000, and the lives of everyone on board are in his hands.
That’s quite a change from the young man he was just a year-and-a-half ago when he joined the Army at 17 during his senior year of high school.
“My grades weren’t exactly on par,” said Lewis. “I passed tests and that was kind of good enough for me. I was thinking well, there’s no way I’m getting scholarships or going to college or anything. So, I thought I’d join the Army, get college paid for, and have a better chance of being accepted.”
And while he originally wanted to join Field Artillery, it was his dad who pushed him toward aviation.
“Since I was 17, my dad was like ‘absolutely not. You’re not doing that.’ So, he pushed me toward working on Black Hawks.”
Lewis arrived at his first duty station, C Co, 2-82, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg, N.C. in February. He got married in April, his wife is expecting twins, and about 8 months after setting his feet on North Carolina soil, he’s the man responsible for the safety of a multi-million dollar helicopter and its passengers soaring over the combat zone in Afghanistan.
While Lewis attempts to throw his smoke grenade, he also has to look for aircraft in the area, watch for enemies on the mountainsides, maintain control of the large machine gun perched in front of him, and still try and get that grenade to land in a hole a hundred feet below and passing by at 40 knots… a slow speed they picked for this training mission.
As he passes the target yet again, he waits, bites his lip, then finally pulls the pin and tosses the grenade. It falls straight down, hits the wheel, and lands about 200 yards from his target.
“Don’t hesitate,” says Yoakam. “You have to anticipate the target and factor in how fast you’re moving. It’s important to get it right. You’re marking a safe LZ [landing zone] for us. You need to be dead-on.”
Lewis nods his bulky flight helmet, which makes him look a little like Darth Vader.
Yoakam, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, decides to try another approach to calm his student’s nerves.
“Lets have a contest,” says Yoakam over the headset. “We’ll see who gets closest… you get one run- one shot at this.”
He tells the pilots to speed it up to “something realistic.” About 120 knots, or 138 mph.
First Yoakam tosses, then Lewis. As the pilots head in a wide arc, the two plumes of smoke, one yellow, one purple, stream from two tiny specks of grenades far below. Yoakam, the yellow, is about 50 feet from the target. Purple smoke rises about 200 feet further away. It’s easy to see who won, but both are smiling.
“I try to make it fun,” said Yoakam. “You have to make it fun, so as he gets further along, and he’s required to know a lot more stuff, it all points back to being fun, which is the reason why it’s worthwhile to study and learn. Not everybody gets to do this, but there’s a lot to learn and do and not much room for error.”
Becoming a fully qualified crew chief is a three-step process, called “progression.” Lewis is “Readiness level [RL] 3,” or the most basic level. The relationship between he and Yoakam is similar to that of a student driver and instructor. Yoakam is always there in the passenger seat with his foot ready to hit the brakes.
“We’re there to teach, but also to perform the duty as well,” said Yoakam. “So when I’m with an RL-3 guy, like today, then even with something as simple as turning the aircraft right, I’m there to make sure the aircraft is free of obstructions. Now, I’m going to let my crew chief I’m training call it, but I’m responsible for it. If he doesn’t do it right, I jump in, call it, and give the ‘all clear’ or trump him when his call’s wrong.”
Once prospective crew chief’s master the very basic skills, they move on to RL-2 training. They work on getting proficient with the gun, transporting machinery and cargo in a “sling load” beneath the helicopter, and other tasks, such as night vision training, which might be required on a real-life mission.
Graduation time comes at RL-1 status, when a new crew chief is born. He becomes part of the crew, loses the instructor shadow, and sits in control of a machine worth nearly $6 million. That’s quite a lot of responsibility for someone in their early 20’s.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Lewis, “knowing you’re responsible for so much, and having someone sitting there staring at you the whole time. You’ve got all that information you’ve got to retain, and you’re trying to bring it back out. You learn all of it in the classroom first, and you don’t really have any connection to the helicopter, then you get in and you’re thinking ‘what was I supposed to do at this point?’ But you know everything depends on you, and you just do it.”
The Black Hawk drops to just a few hundred feet off the ground, and swings its way into a steep, narrow valley with sharp hilltops and ridges so close it seems like you can reach out and touch them. This particular valley is where helicopters of all types practice a skill critical to survival in combat: aerial gunnery.
“Keep a close eye out for people and targets,” cautions Yoakam through the headset. “Really watch close. We don’t want to hurt anyone out here.”
The crew makes three passes, each time picking out different targets on the hillsides. The area is devoid of people, except for some kids running down the road directly beneath the helicopter.
“Kids waiting for our brass,” says Yoakam, referring to the spent brass shell casings that are about to rain toward the ground as the M-240B machine gun eats through round after round of ammunition. “The kids here collect and sell it for extra money.”
Once the children were in the clear, Yoakam gave the direction to start the first “live” run down the valley. He points out a concrete barrier perched on a dusty hilltop among scrub brush and gives the order for Lewis to “light it up.”
Lewis squeezes the trigger, and bullets fly. He’s hitting dirt, shooting high, or too far left or right. The tracer rounds seem to curve away from wherever Lewis aims under the whirlwind of the blades.
Before you know it, he’s chewed up his 240-round belt of ammo and it’s time to reload. The ammo shouldn’t have gone that fast. Lewis should’ve fired short, controlled bursts to dial in his aim.
“We do a lot of teaching on the ground from Power Point,” said Yoakam. “Slide after slide we teach this stuff in a classroom, but it’s hard to describe moving in three axes and doing this stuff for real in the aircraft until you get out there.”
So, Lewis re-loads as the helicopter swings an arc at the end of the valley to take another run. Yoakam gives him some brief pointers over the radio, his voice nearly drowned by the rushing wind and roar of the engines.
This is the first time Lewis has fired from the air, but not the first time he’s practiced what he should be doing. The real instruction took place back at home base.
“Before I start flying too much with people, I like to do a lot of dry runs at the aircraft,” said Yoakam. “We don’t get the availability to talk tons as we’re flying. You can’t just sit there and have a five-minute explanation on how to do something. So, we talk about it in the classroom, bring it out to the aircraft, briefly run over it- how you’re going to accomplish it- what the classroom really means to the aircraft- and then go fly. Since it’s fresh, you cut down the amount of time you have to talk.”
Yoakam, 26, joined the Army in 2006. In his short five-year career, however, he’s accrued more than 1500 hours of flight experience, progressed nearly 10 crew chiefs, and honed his teaching style like a fine art. It’s a duty he takes personally, seeing it as a chance to spread everything he’s learned over the past few years.
“I like making my mark,” said Yoakam. “Most people do. I’ve been doing this long enough that I hate watching people do things the wrong way. It’s just a thing people develop. This is my outlet; my way of breaking bad habits in the flight company. I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means, but it’s my job to leave what’s in my head for someone else. That’s the way I look at the job. I demonstrate not just what the manual says, but other ways of doing things that are smarter, better, and still accomplish the standards. I was a coach in high school, and ever since I got out of school, I’ve been a teacher. It just made sense for me to follow this path.”
His method is working for Lewis, who by his own account has never been much for traditional schooling.
“I like Yoakam because of the way he has everything broken up into sections,” said Lewis.
“I’m not sure how anyone else does it, but I can imagine if you had all the information and responsibilities all at once, it’d be a lot harder than what it is, because the stuff we did today isn’t half of what I’d normally have to do. And those weren’t even the mission tasks. Those were the standard tasks you’d have to do for any flight.”
Lewis, who ironically aspires to leave the military one day and become a middle school history teacher, has gained more out of Yoakam’s instruction than just basics required to become a crew chief.
“He makes it fun and funny,” said Lewis. “He’s a funny guy. He doesn’t yell at you for messing up. He just explains it. He doesn’t get upset, which makes it easier to learn. He has a good time with it too, which makes it better. You can tell some teachers don’t like their jobs, but he’s not one of those types.”
“It’s rewarding to watch someone grow,” said Yoakam. “Usually there’s a 15-20 hour mark of guys who are going to get it, then it just clicks. They start doing multiple things at once. For instance, you’ll take a new guy out and you have to nudge him along, but then by the 4th or 5th flight, the pilots will say ‘we’re doing this’ and then he’s just in motion. He’s doing what he’s got to do and all I do is sit back there and give him a check mark.”
In the air, Yoakam is still busy nudging Lewis. Two more passes through the valley, more expended belts of ammunition, and then, rather suddenly, Lewis begins firing short, controlled bursts and landing a majority of the rounds on target.
“There you go,” sounds Yoakam over the intercom. Lewis turns his head and smiles. A few more congratulatory words, and Yoakam asks the pilots to head back home. He and Lewis have achieved a victory for the day, and he ends the training on a high note.
Lewis is progressing well, says Yoakam, but that’s not always the case.
“Not everybody makes it,” said Yoakam. “I’ve had one or two guys who didn’t make it. It’s usually retention; retaining the information and situational awareness. Like when the Aircraft’s in a landing profile- and you can hear it, you can see it, you can hear us making the radio calls to the tower, and I’ve had a few people that can’t tell you that information after 60 or 70 hours in the aircraft- that we’re in a decelerative attitude and coming in for a landing and I’m having to prompt them in the aircraft… hey, this is your time, you’re clear down right… there are a few people who just never get it.”
Yoakam is sure Lewis isn’t one of those people, and although he’s got a long way to go before he’ll fly without his shadow in tow, Lewis is pretty sure with Yoakam around, he’ll make it.
“You’ve got 90 days at the most, but I don’t think it’s going to take me too long, because like I said, Yoakam’s a good teacher,” said Lewis. “There’s still a lot of stuff to learn, but I’ve got this.”
JALALABAD, Afghanistan – U.S. Army Spec. Jared Yoakam, 26, of Yellow Springs, OH teaches U.S. Army Private 1st Class Craig Lewis, 19, of Crescent City, CA skills necessary to become a Black Hawk crew chief in the doorway of their UH-60M helicopter. Crew chiefs are responsible for the safety of all passengers and cargo on board the helicopter, and are the eyes and ears for pilots whose field of view is limited to what they can see from the cockpit.
Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon, Task Force Poseidon Public Affairs