Fixed Wingin’ It: A Look Inside the Fixed Wing Operations of USAG-KA

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Berry Aviation’s flight operations crew on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll is the team dedicated to the critical job of shuttling commuter employees and cargo between the islands of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur.

Berry Aviation Site Manager Steve Simpson took a few moments with the Kwajalein Hourglass to explain the skills and experience it takes to fly as a contractor for this mission on the garrison.

“First, I want to explain we have extremely experienced flight crews out here and very stringent hiring requirements just off the bat to get in the door,” Simpson said.

All commercial pilots in the air today have the flight hours, licenses and certificates to fly commercially, of course. But to fly on USAG-KA, pilots need the highest-level FAA license available, one requiring 1,500 flight hours and heaps of classroom training. It’s not an easy feat to accomplish.

“We all have what is called an Airline Transport License,” he explained. “It is the highest form of FAA license a pilot can have, and it is required to fly as captain in the Metro here. A much higher license than a commercial license.”

Then comes three weeks of school learning the ins and outs of the aerial workhorse at the garrison: the Fairchild Metroliner twin-turboprop. Safety and emergency training, simulator training and FAA evaluations are included. Most pilots will then do this process all over again, this time for the UH-72 Lakota helicopter—another important airframe on the garrison.

Flying both fixed wing and rotary wing vehicles is a unique quality to the aviation operation on the garrison. Of the nine pilots currently on the aviation team, seven are dual rated, meaning they commercially fly both helicopters and airplanes. Only about six percent of all FAA-licensed pilots are certified to do this.

On USAG-KA, it adds up to a lot of flying for pilots.

“Our average flight time of our pilots is roughly about 6,000 to 7,000 hours,” Simpson said. “We have some pilots with over 10,000 hours. And we have roughly, about 450 years of aviation experience out here on Kwajalein. So, when you get in this plane … you can feel very comfortable.

“To be honest with you, everybody here is probably more experienced than the average airline crew,” he continued. “We’ve got some good folks with a lot of experience who have flown a lot of stuff from 757s all over the world and helicopters in combat – you name it – we’ve got some good folks.”

Long-time Kwaj resident and pilot, Helbert Alfred, is a good example. He’s been flying professionally on Kwajalein Atoll for nearly 20 years.

He saw his first airplane as a young boy on Ailuk Atoll. It was an eye-opening experience that would come to affect him the rest of his life.

“One morning I was out fishing with my grandfather, and the next thing we know –we hear this terrifying roar flying over the island,” Alfred explained. “And you can imagine how that is, you know, for a young kid in the outer islands. I was terrified and afraid, and I run into the bushes. And after the plane landed and the engines were killed, I realized these were people. … These were the Navy guys flying a seaplane, coming to Ailuk Atoll with supplies like C-rations, along with two scientists taking samples to measure, I guess, the radiation level on that atoll.”

Years later, in 1968, he would first set foot on an airplane when, as part of Majuro’s Assumption School marching band, he and his classmates were flown from Majuro to Kwajalein Atoll to play music during the traditional summer carnival held on Ebeye. The flight aboard the Douglas DC-4 was a nerve-wracking trip, with each bout of turbulence introducing thoughts of imminent demise – something Alfred can laugh about today. 14 years later, in 1982, he found himself behind the flight stick of a small Cessna, taking lessons for his pilot license. The act of flying – and the liberation and independence that come with it – was like a drug, and he’s been hooked ever since.

“To be able to defy the nature or the forces of gravity is just unbelievable,” Alfred said. “Like I mentioned earlier, for a guy who came from the outer islands, it’s just incredible.”

Alfred and the rest of the pilots owe it to the small army of mechanics who keep the planes running. Few people know how the Metro ticks better than Maintenance Manager and Mechanic Ed Kramer, a man with 33 years of experience working on fixed wings. He began coming out to Kwajalein in 2003, when Berry Aviation first brought out the Metroliner to the garrison. Since day one, he’s been involved with the Metro operation on Kwajalein. It’s a good plane to anchor a career on, he said.

“I think it’s a good looking airplane,” said Kramer. “I think it’s sleek. I love the engines – 1,000 horsepower in that tiny package. … When I got the opportunity to work on it I jumped on it, and I’ve been happy with it ever since. It’s fed my family; it’s even raised grandkids. So, I like this airplane.”

Kramer said there is one constant evil each mechanic on Kwajalein Atoll must confront on the job: corrosion. Adjusting to the harsh environment local to the Marshall presented a bit of a learning curve for the Metro operation in the initial years, but it is a reality with which the maintenance crew is now comfortable and experienced, he said.

“Having worked in Puerto Rico for several years, we had corrosion – but nothing like out here,” Kramer said. “It took us a while – a couple of years – to figure out a program that works. And as you can see, the airplanes look pretty good. Our program is working. We couldn’t do it without our Marshallese helpers. They rub down the airplane every night and put oil on them to make sure they don’t corrode. Plus the inspection program, which we’ve increased 150 times over the years, to the point where we’re inspecting it every two weeks in one form or another. Corrosion is the big deal.”

The fixed wing mechanic teams’ dedication to the Metroliners on the garrison does not go unnoticed, especially among the pilots who fly them.

“You know, I’m quite honored to have been able to fly with and work with a group of professionals. … I couldn’t ask for a better team,” Alfred said. “The mechanics are just great. For a place like Kwajalein, which is really isolated, they’re still able to put these airplanes in the air. It’s just unbelievable. I’ll trust my life to these guys.”

John Bobrowksi, an aircraft mechanic who has worked on the atoll since 1981, gives some of the credit of the aviation team’s success to the Metro’s no-nonsense design and build.

“I like the materials,” he said. “I like the metal. It’s a lot of steel, titanium, aluminum, magnesium. Not much plastic. Not too much computer. It’s just basic, good, solid, reliable.” An old school airplane.

Kramer has something to be proud of when he tallies up the number of flights performed, miles flown and passengers and cargo carried since 2003, when the Metro was brought out to the atoll.

“In all total, we have flown 44,371 flights as of Monday,” he said. “And basically 12,311 hours. You figure out the 50 miles to Roi and back that we fly and everything, we’ve put in well over 2.2 million miles of flying. We’ve carried 576,000 passengers and 35 million pounds of freight over the years. That’s about where we stand right now.

“These airplanes were built in 1987,” he continued. “So, you take a 2.5-ton pickup truck and come out here and fill it up every day, six times a day and fly it back and forth to Roi for 2 million miles – I don’t think you’ll find another vehicle out here that’s lasted that long.”

Like many operations on USAG-KA, the aviation team would not be able to perform were it not for its Marshallese workforce. They have been key to the fixed wing operation’s success over the years, Simpson said.

“One thing that is cool is we have 24 employees, 33 percent of which is RMI,” he explained. “Almost all of them are our longest tenured employees. We have, of course, our two Marshallese pilots – Helbert Alfred and Jeff Wase – who’ve both been here coming up on 20 years. We have two RMI in our supply room, who are critically important; three guys who work in our hangar; and an admin in our maintenance office. She’s kind of like an admin mom out here; she runs a pretty important show out here.”

Of course, the aviation team couldn’t do its job without the ceaseless help of the Airfield Operations crews on Roi and Kwajalein. They’re the folks on the garrison who perform flight manifesting, fueling, baggage and cargo handling, flight scheduling, air traffic monitoring and much more. Together, the pilots, mechanics, ground teams, administrative and supply staff work together day in and day out, takeoff after takeoff to perform the critical mission of the Metro flight on Kwajalein Atoll.