Return to Boxcar Homepage


The flight engineer is a very special soldier--one who can easily make or break a cargo helicopter unit

Major Robert S. Fairweather

Dark suddenly surpassed the dying day and with it came the drenching rains from a now hidden thunderstorm. The time was ideal for the enemy to press home his advantage from an earlier attack against the cavalry troop whose ammunition was running low.

A call was put out for ammunition. A CH-47 would be needed to move the required amount of ammunition within the short time available, so the mission went to the 200th Assault Support Helicopter Company: the Pachyderms. With speed to match the situation, a crew was quickly rounded up, and minutes later a Chinook was on its way through the unfriendly sky to the PZ (pickup zone).

Upon arrival, the aircraft was landed, coordination was effected and the first slingload hookup was made. The aircraft then proceeded to the LZ (landing zone) where the load was deposited inside the troop perimeter. One more sortie was made and two KIAs were returned to the PZ. By this time weather had deteriorated to the extent that no further flight could be attempted. The crew slept in the aircraft until morning, and then carried the last load to the unit at first light.

The mission had been accomplished because of total crew effort. One of the crewmembers was a young, but combat-experienced sky soldier from Nebraska. Working under adverse conditions of night marginal weather in an atmosphere of constant enemy and friendly fire, he operated with efficiency and skill. Preparing the ship for flight in minimum time, managing the enlisted crew, performing the slingload operations with a flashlight, clearing the aircraft into an unprepared LZ and directing the loading of the KIAs he proved once again the professional dedication of those who make or break a cargo helicopter unit--the flight engineers.

What does the flight engineer do? His daily routine is rough. Up at 0415 hours for a 0630 takeoff, he hurriedly eats breakfast and then, with this crew, starts the preflight. Engine covers and tiedowns are removed, oil levels are checked and lines and fittings are examined for leaks. The windshields are cleaned, the weapons and ammo mounted, the water cans filled and any special equipment is put aboard.

When the pilots arrive, the aircraft hatches are opened for preflight inspection. The flight engineer accompanies the pilots to answer questions or initiate required maintenance.

The flight engineer, often called "chief" by the pilots, is greatly respected by the aviators. Many times the decision as to whether a maintenance fault is or isn't hazardous to flight rests on the "chiefs" shoulders. In addition, he is responsible for the performance of the other two enlisted crewmembers and must insure that they are qualified to serve in their positions. In emergencies, such as engine fires, he must react immediately and correctly or the entire aircraft and crew are jeopardized.

The daily routine of the Chinook is usually varied and cargo comes in all sizes and shapes. The flight engineer depends on the aircraft commander's preflight briefing in order to organize the cargo compartment for the day's operation. He must be ready for external loads and at the same time be prepared to accept internal loads, which can consist of such items as live water buffalo, trussed pigs, mermite cans, lumber, steaks, rice bags, generators, howitzer tubes, field portable toilets, ice and a thousand other items essential to combat.

Slingloading operations require much skill and judgment and the "chief" must direct the pilot over the load, insuring that each direction and dimension is timed just right to include pilot reaction time. As the hookup is made, the flight engineer must make a rapid judgment as to the condition and rigging of the load to prevent the pilot from lifting one that is improperly prepared.

As the flight progresses, the chief must continually inform the pilot as to the aerodynamic characteristics of the load and be ready to release it in an emergency. Upon landing, he must again direct the pilot for proper placement and then insure that the load is released from the hook. Many ground pounders are prone to stand in front of the Chinook waving directions to the pilot, never realizing that the flight engineer in actually directing the aircraft over the hookup or release point.

Internal loads, oddly enough, are usually more difficult to handle. The average PZ or LZ is a natural obstacle course designed with stumps to puncture the underside skin of the aircraft, trees or antennas to recontour the blades, mud holes deep enough to float the USS Enterprise and with all manner of rotorwash agitated flying debris. The flight engineer, coordinating with the gunners, must insure clearance from these obstacles and yet prevent undue delay in the landing of the aircraft. Then the fun starts because the ground crews are anxious to start loading, and sometimes in a carried-away state of enthusiasm, then heave items such as mortar tubes or tank generators on the floor and watch in surprise as they go right through the alloy floor covering.

Sometimes the loading crews are non-English speaking Montagnards with pierced earlobes dressed in the latest style loincloths. At any rate, the chief must be prepared for any situation and cut loading and unload

There are so many things that flight engineers run into during the course of a day. Lord mounts fail, oil leaks develop, the enemy takes potshots, members of the crew receive minor cuts or burns that require first aid, gas hoses slip--covering the unlucky refueler with JP4 (requiring an immediate strip of clothing and thorough washing of the body)--the pilots need a cap of water brought to the cockpit, hotrod jeep drivers charge the ramp with great speed but poor control and proceed to redesign the cargo compartment interior (fortunately, a revised unit SOP eliminated that headache), passengers get sick, soldiers inadvertently drop grenades and a host of similar events which would drive a lesser man to despair.

The chief's day does not end when the average six to eight hours of flight time are completed. He, along with his fellow crewchiefs, must then conduct a postflight inspection, clean the aircraft perform the daily inspection and wrap then ship up for the night. After a late supper, a relaxing shower and a letter to the wife, there is little time or desire for anything but some well-earned sleep.

The Chinook is a big helicopter and it demands big efforts. To keep it maintained, to keep it armed and to keep it functioning in its cargo role, aggressive and hardworking men are needed.

The flight engineer is not a god or a superman. However, he is a key man on the crew of a cargo helicopter and is chosen for ability, judgment and dedication. He can take pride in the role that he and his contemporaries play in assuring timely delivery of essential cargo to combat ground units. He has proven himself and earns the respect of all who serve with him.