The CH-53 Sea Stallion and MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters have been mainstays of the Navy and Marine Corps for decades. On any day, these heavy lift helicopters can be seen around the world performing a wide variety of critical missions.
Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) ensures squadrons in the Navy and Marine Corps are equipped with combat-ready helicopters by providing maintenance, overhaul and repair services for the platform. To do this, FRCE employs a workforce of highly skilled civilian aviation maintenance professionals who perform this often complex work. Working alongside these artisans is a small group of Marines who make up FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch. These four Marines fill a critical need in ensuring fleet aviators have what they need, when they need it.
“That may not be a large group, but they play an outsized and pivotal role here at the depot,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James Belmont. “The CH-53 and MH-53 helicopters are workhorses of the fleet and these Marines are instrumental in getting these aircraft out of the depot and back into the hands of the warfighter.”
FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch consists of two pilots and two crew chiefs, who work with the aircraft from the time FRCE inducts it for service until they fly it back to the fleet.
The squadrons expect to receive a capable aircraft that is ready for immediate use, said Capt. Ryan Boyer, FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch head and CH-53 pilot. Boyer flew CH-53s with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 and while deployed as part of the Unit Deployment Program prior to his assignment to FRCE. He has first-hand knowledge of the importance of flight line readiness.
“Some of these aircraft are heading straight out to units that are going on Marine Expeditionary Units and deploying,” said Boyer. “Other squadrons need aircraft that they can fly and train on, so we need to be able to provide a safe aircraft that are mission-ready.”
In order to provide the fleet with quality and capable aircraft, FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch oversees a variety of critical functions, including inspections and safety checks conducted during each phase of the maintenance, overhaul and repair process, and ensuring artisans obtain and maintain necessary certifications and qualifications.
“There is no check or process that we take a shortcut with at the depot,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Hotelling, FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch deputy and CH-53 crew chief. “Every single process has to be exactly by the book to ensure that we are giving the squadron the best, safest and most capable aircraft. Throughout all phases of the process, we’re out checking the aircraft. We go in and talk to the artisans and before it is allowed to come out to the line, we have to go out there and essentially look over the entire aircraft.”
Hotelling, whose past assignments include deployments throughout U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said delivering a capable, combat-ready aircraft to the fleet drives the team at FRCE. Drawing on his own experience in the squadrons, he said mission readiness in the fleet relies on aircraft the squadrons can depend on.
“Out in the fleet, the Marines and Sailors are expecting a quality product from us,” said Hotelling. “We have to give them a quality product they can trust. They can do their inspections, take it on the boat, and go wherever they need to go with total confidence that it is going to perform as we say it will. Providing a safe, effective aircraft for the warfighter is what it all really boils down to.”
In the course of their duties, the Marines work closely with the depot’s civilian artisans. For Cpl. Devon Schoff, a CH-53 crew chief at FRCE, this was the first time he had worked with such a large number of civilians.
“Working with so many civilians was a bit strange at first,” said Schoff. “I worked with a handful at my last squadron, so I had some experience working around civilians and contractors, but not on this scale. Here at FRCE, it’s roughly 30 Marines to 4,000 civilians.”
Although civilian employees far outnumber FRCE’s uniformed personnel, many are no stranger to the military. Hotelling said FRCE’s workforce includes a large number of military veterans, many of whom worked on the same aircraft during their time in uniform.
“Something like 40% of the artisans we employ are former military,” said Hotelling. “They bring to the table this wide range of experience. We have people here with 30, 40 and even 50 years of experience working on a specific aircraft platform.”
Boyer said working closely with this highly skilled and dedicated workforce makes the often complicated process of getting an aircraft out to the fleet easier.
“There’s so much expertise here and there’s so many different people that are all willing to help you,” said Boyer. “I’m only a phone call or two away from an engines, components or manufacturing expert, and getting any answers that I need.”
This close collaboration between the Marines and their civilian colleagues is essential when solving issues that can arise when working on the aircraft. Hotelling said working on the helicopters can be demanding, as no two are alike.
“These aircraft can be finicky,” said Hotelling. “Each one has its own unique issue that we have to work around. Figuring out that solution with the artisans and with the pilots can be extremely challenging, but it’s also the most rewarding aspect of the job.”
Another function of the Marines working in the H-53 program is to serve as advocates for the fleet, Boyer added.
“We are the fleet’s voice within FRCE,” said Boyer. “FRCE is a huge machine. These artisans get the aircraft, break them down, repair them and put them all back together. Throughout that entire process, we’re here to make sure that the things that need to get fixed for the fleet are getting fixed, and that we’re communicating with the fleet.”
Once maintenance, repair and overhaul processes are complete, and all necessary checks and inspections have been conducted, the final step for FRCE’s H-53 Military Branch is the delivery of the aircraft to the squadron. The aircraft is towed to the flight line, where the H-53 Military Branch works side by side with FRCE civilian artisans to conduct a functional check flight. This determines whether an aircraft airframe, engine or engines, accessories, or equipment is functioning according to established standards while the aircraft operates in its intended environment
After the functional check flight is completed, Boyer and Maj. Brittany Fayos, FRCE’s Rotary Wing Division deputy and a CH-53 pilot, will fly the aircraft to its squadron, with crew chiefs Hotelling and Schoff aboard.
The CH-53 and MH-53 helicopters leaving the depot go to both Navy and Marine Corps units in the eastern half of the United States, where pilots will fly them on missions ranging from training flights to real world operations. According to Schoff, supporting the fleet on this scale is what makes an assignment to FRCE unique for Marines.
“I think our mission at FRCE is special,” said Schoff. “There’s nothing else like it. In the squadrons, the mission is to get flights out, train new people and be ready to fight. Our mission as Marines here is to make sure the fleet has the aircraft to complete their warfighting mission. I feel that being here, I’m able to support all my brothers and sisters in uniform.”
FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.