HAI’s Excellence in Helicopter Maintenance Award usually goes to one person and has never before gone to both maintenance personnel and pilots, so this year’s award thoroughly breaks the mold. Being honored are four maintenance people and two pilots, all employees of AAR Airlift Group, headquartered in Palm Bay, Fla.
The particular incident that earned these brave men the award occurred on July 6, 2013, at an unidentified forward-operating base (FOB) somewhere in Afghanistan. Pilot-in-command Stephen Fiduk, second-in-command Robert Murphy and crew chief Gabriel Meza were transporting ammunition on a resupply mission in an AAR Sikorsky S-61 from FOB Sharana, the flight crew’s home base (also in Afghanistan), to the unidentified FOB, when the helicopter’s number-two engine failed. The S-61 is powered by two General Electric T-58 turboshafts.
Information about exactly when the engine failed, the cause of the failure and whether it was a full or partial failure was not provided. [Editor’s note: Much about this event remains confidential and the author’s request to AAR Airlift to speak with the people involved in it was not granted.] The award nomination report of the incident, written by Jayson Wilson, AAR Airlift vice president of flight operations, simply states that the pilots remained calm and that the crew “executed the required emergency procedures and performed a flawless engine-out landing at high gross weight without injury or damage.”
Wilson’s report goes on to state, however, “Simultaneously, they were taking on indirect fire by local pro-Taliban and Taliban forces, who were attacking the [unidentified forward-operating] base at the time.”
FOB Sharana and AAR’s system operations control (SOC) center in Palm Bay, were immediately notified of the problem and an emergency response plan was implemented. Quickly, a second AAR S-61 departed Sharana, carrying maintenance manager Alan Nowak, maintenance supervisor Joshua Ricciardi and crew chief Nathan Raught, along with a spare T-58 engine. It arrived at the unidentified FOB without incident.
Nowak, who supervised the engine exchange and installation, and Ricciardi “not only led the team’s exchange efforts, but got in and performed mechanical actions themselves, including unloading the new engine, setting up a lift crane, removing the bad engine and installing the new engine,” Wilson wrote. “Meza and Raught worked all day as flying crew chiefs before the emergency and then helped with the engine change and got the aircraft ready for departure.” Murphy, the SIC, also “assisted the maintainers, as if he were on of the maintenance team.”
The engine removal and replacement were “performed in a high-threat environment without the aid of advanced tooling, a hangar or any [of the] normal maintenance conveniences.” It was also completed in record time. From the takeoff from Sharana of the second S-61 carrying the replacement engine and maintenance crew to the takeoff of the first S-61 with the replacement engine installed only about three hours and 55 minutes elapsed. This time included a quick functional check “flight” of the engine while the aircraft was on the ground.
Wrote Wilson, “The ability to perform maintenance in a hangar with all the luxuries a hangar can provide is one thing. To do it in a combat zone in one of the most IDF [indirect fire] attacked locations in Afghanistan while under attack is another. Their work saved an aircraft from destruction and provided a standard of which AAR is very proud. Our customer, the U.S. Military, was in awe of their accomplishment.”
Concluding his nomination report for the award, Wilson stated, “These gentlemen saved an aircraft, keeping a valuable transport in service for moving troops via air rather than by ground, which saves lives in a combat zone.”