KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Though most enemy anti-aircraft guns were destroyed when U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, the climate remains hostile to the aircraft of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).
With high temperatures reaching well past the 100 degree mark and peak wind speeds of 60 knots blowing dust and other debris into engines, the maintainers of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the 22d MEU (SOC)'s aviation combat element have been extra careful to ensure their aircraft are able to fly.
Despite being in a combative and environmentally dangerous area, taking shortcuts is not an option for the "Fighting Griffins" of 266.
"Some people think, 'This is combat, I can cut corners,'" said Cpl. Ryan Armes, a Chandler, Ind., native and CH-46 Sea Knight crew chief. "That's not how we do business. We train as we fight."
Now, the squadron is fighting as they trained. Instead of cutting down on procedures, they're adding them.
"We've added a couple of more inspections because of the sand and the dust," said Armes. "We've washed the planes twice as much."
Keeping the planes clean isn't just to look pretty. Dirt in the wrong places can become hazardous.
"The dust is a big factor," said Cpl. Matt Toscano, a Boulder, Mont., native who serves as an AV-8B Harrier airframe mechanic for HMM-266. "We have to compensate by taping everything up."
Tape prevents dust from entering the hydraulic systems of the aircraft during maintenance. Dirt and grit in the systems could cause the pilot to loose control of the aircraft - something you don't want to have happen at five thousand feet.
Though changing defective hydraulic system components is part of the maintainer's job, one part of the aircraft that can't be replaced is the Marine himself. Afghanistan's weather causes other less obvious problems that maintainers must look out for when working on aircraft.
"We're constantly looking out for each other," said Toscano. "On top of the aircraft, it sometimes gets so hot you can't touch it with your bare hands."
Heat also affects the Marine's bodies. They are constantly drinking water to avoid heat injuries, which could range from heat cramps to heat strokes. The Marines must also be careful of the rocky terrain. Minor ankle sprains have been commonplace amongst Marines of the 22d MEU (SOC), because of rocks laid down to prevent dust. Dust has caused some upper respiratory infections, as well as eye irritations.
The terrain doesn't just put the Marines at risk. The aircraft are also vulnerable to the terrain, as one crew of a CH-53 found out. Heat and terrain combined to cause a blowout of its bird's tires. Though it's one more thing the maintainers have to worry about, they have all the tools they need to accomplish the repairs and keep the birds flying.
"We've got a good crew," Cpl. Neil Padgett, from Suffolk, Va. Padgett, a CH-53 flightline mechanic, said, "We couldn't do what we do without them. You've got to land where you've got to land."
For the Marines of HMM-266 (Rein), a good landing is more than just one you can walk away from. Keeping the pilots, crews, and personnel who fly in their aircraft safe is a full time job that just got busier.
In addition to the reinforced helicopter squadron, the 22d MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines and MEU Service Support Group 22. The unit will be in Afghanistan for an undetermined length of time conducting combat and civil military operations with Combined Joint Task Force 180.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.