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Army helicopters aid stranded oil rig

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A storm New Year's Eve ran an arctic drilling rig aground on an Alaskan island and two new Chinook helicopters from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, came to the rescue.

The Royal Dutch Shell Arctic rig Kulluk Salvage is a circular drill barge that does not have propulsion and needed heavy equipment to restore operational power. The U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, out of Fort Wainwright was able to support the recovery operation.

"We came out to assist however possible," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tommi Webber, maintenance test pilot for the "Sugar Bears," 1-52nd Aviation Regiment. "That turned out to be moving some pretty heavy loads onto the Kulluk Salvage so they could get power restored."

Fort Wainwright gained 12 new CH-47F model Chinook helicopters in October 2012, when the helicopters were flown to Alaska from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. The Soldiers had trained with them for several months before they were asked to help the oil rig.

The Chinooks have a sling load capacity of 26,000 pounds center hook, 17,000 pounds forward and aft hook, and 25,000 pound tandem; more than most civilian helicopters and any other Army helicopter. Even with that capacity, enough power is needed to sustain the flight. It was during the pre-flight checks when a weight problem was discovered.

"One of our biggest setbacks was the weight of the loads that we were taking out," the maintenance test pilot said. "The mighty CH-47F can carry quite a bit, but when that load is 16,000 pounds, we just have to do some mitigation to make sure we have enough power to get it on. I know that the aviation portion to help the Kulluk is contracted out, they just didn't have a helicopter with enough lift capacity to take that equipment out and that's where we came in. We were glad we could help."

The decision was made after they tested it; they had to lose some weight. The external fuel tank was one of the items they had to leave behind.

"We actually had to plan fuel down to the last 10 pounds that we had just enough to pick up that load, get out there and drop it off, and have enough to get back," said Webber, who is from Dansville, N.Y. "When you pick up loads like that, you want to power-margin; we didn't have anything extra to spare."

By dropping off the extra weight and stripping down the aircraft of unnecessary equipment, they found a comfortable power margin that would get it done.

The weight wasn't the only metaphorical speed bump they encountered.

"As most people in Kodiak know, the weather is totally unpredictable here," said Capt. Matt Mraz, platoon leader with 1-52nd Avn., and native of Clarion, Iowa. "It is constantly snowing, and then raining."

"The weather played the biggest part, and then distance was also a huge contributing factor to the complications that we saw," Mraz continued. "Due to the size of the loads and the distance we were carrying them, we just didn't have enough fuel to get the loads to the Kulluk, so we had to come up with some pretty interesting ways to fix that problem. We were definitely thinking outside of the box on this one."

"It worked out very well," he said. "I'd just like to thank the Coast Guard and especially the guys out at the Kodiak Rocket Test facility that loaned their help when we asked if we could use their facility. Everyone that we asked for support throughout this entire operation was more than happy to bend over backward for us, especially the Coast Guard in providing our birds a hangar for four days; that was crucial."

Performing the real-world mission gave the team a feeling that training falls short on.

"This is one of our first real-world missions with these new aircraft," said Sgt. Michael Cummings, C-47 flight engineer with 1-52 Avn.

Webber said the Army unit was proud to help.

"In the end, we got both the generator and the compressor onto the Kulluk, with no one hurt, and both aircraft back here, so I'm very happy with that," she said. "I'm really glad our Sugar Bears were given the chance to help out our home state of Alaska."

Article by Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett, Army.mil