Knuckle-Draggers: The Makings of a Pave Low Crew Chief

By Robert Burnes

ACA Lifemember #6455

The plane landed in Newport News, VA and I couldn’t have been more excited about the next leg of this adventure. I joined the USAF soon after the events of 9-11. I was working as a police officer in California. I was a member of the county’s counter-gang teams, which means I spent most of my days grossly outnumbered by heavily armed gang members, deep in gang controlled territory. A typical criminal contact meant it was me and maybe one other officer. CHP and the Sheriff’s Office would provide cover from time to time, but that wasn’t the norm. I was coming off a 16 hour shift, having spent the previous evening and night serving a high-risk warrant on two homes controlled by a cartel group. I was tired, sweaty, and sore. I turned the TV on and the first of the two planes was already in one of the burning towers. I don’t remember standing up, but I was when the second plane hit. I can’t tell you how strong the feeling was to join the military, but it was powerful. I couldn’t shake the thought. Two weeks later I went into the US Army’s recruiting office. I wanted to know more about joining special forces. I wanted to be there at the spear tip. I wanted to be challenged if I was going to give up my near 10 years as a cop, a career I’d dreamed of accomplishing my whole life. However, the Army Recruited wasn’t there, but the USAF recruiter was. I had no idea the USAF had special forces and neither did he. A quick search on their data base revealed several options. I was already a proficient shooter and I had a reputation with the teams as a good tactician. I already paid my dues as an operator on the urban streets of California. I was happy to hear that the USAF’s operators were not just shooters, but extremely proficient in a number of skill sets-all of which were impressive. Then the recruiter said, “There’s also being a Pave Low crew chief.” “What’s that?” I said. He printed off the information that he had and we had a talk. I wasn’t sure, at my age, if I could do 20 years and still be in a position to provide for my family. Logic won me. I needed a job that would give add to my skillsets AND provide me with a whole new set of skills. “What do cops do when they retire?” He asked and I answered, “Die. Or work security.” Neither of which was a good option. However, the Pave Low program provided the crew chief with a dozen new skills sets, certifications, and degrees. I loved to fly. I loved helicopters even though I didn’t know anything about the machine. All I knew was I was sold now. I felt this was the path. A week later I entered DEPS and within the year I was graduating from basic training.
I was welcomed into our tiny community of Pave Low students by a guy from Oklahoma with a thick accent. We climbed the stairs to the third floor where half of the rooms were filled. There were only 24 of us with 8 in each class. The classes were staggered so that as a class graduated, another took its place. There were Pave Hawk crew chief as well. These combat search and rescue guys were training with the Army’s crew chiefs and they were fewer than us. Four or six at a time every 12 weeks.

The first time I saw the static H-53 in the hangar was in October of 2002. It was giant. Two school buses long, about a school bus and a half tall and what looked like thousands of large and tiny hoses and wires running this way and that on the top. A look inside revealed a mountain of cables, electrical and hydraulic lines, gauges, lights, and buttons. I looked into the cockpit area and was met with dozens of gauges, lights, buttons, switches, and levers. An instructor told me that to pass the Pave Low course, I would need to know everything here and 18”s around it. I suddenly felt unprepared and I thought, perhaps, that I should have gone to the CCT school. Not that the CCT is any easier, at all and I have nothing but respect and love for my CCT brothers. I was just more comfortable with the majority of the training having served on SWAT teams almost my entire professional life.

I’m not sure what I can or can’t write about the school so I will side with caution. I feel comfortable saying this much; this school was far harder than anything I had done in my previous life or since. To qualify that statement, I am a 4L in a prestigious law school in California, working in the preventing abuse, sexual abuse, and human trafficking in the civil courts. Law school has been hard and demanding, but I am maintain a social life and I work almost full-time with the law firm. A student in the Pave Low school meant there would be no time for a social life. Not during the week and certainly not during the weekend. My life revolved around the Pave Low.

My class comprised of 8 students. 8 airmen who were all bright, driven, and tough. They were also young, almost 10 years younger than me. I was surprised, thought I shouldn’t have been, at how much information they could digest and retain. I struggled to maintain position with them at times. The information came in like a firehose trying to fill a dixie cup. Electronic systems, flight systems, hydraulic systems, engines, and airframe. Wires, hoses, lines, couplings, structural engineerings, and chemical compounds. I longed for a day off, but I started to look back at my easier days serving warrants on a drug house packed with gang members armed with AK-47’s and shotguns.

I’m not comfortable providing specifics, but I can say that a few seasons came and went before we were put into pairs for the final test at Fort Eustis. I was paired with a young airman who I respected then and respect and love more today. The instructor was not our friend. We couldn’t help one another either. We had to walk over, crawl under, inside, and on top of this giant animal and identify everything we touched and everything within 18”s around it. We could only make a couple of mistakes or we would fail the entire program and had to either start over again or be discharged from the Air Force. Mistakes in the Pave Low world would not be tolerated.

The final test from this school house takes days. Not hours. I was lucky enough to be one of the first tested. The others looked on with growing anxiety and agitation.

I aced the final exam along with my fellow airman. 0 errors. That was not the result of relaxed testing standards or an understanding instructor-this was the end result of months and months of constant study, review, and hands-on practice. At the end of this school, what was first a mountain of unknown steel, wires, tubes, levers, gauges, and various parts and pieces was a totally known animal to us. We understood and knew every piece of this iconic helicopter and understood the how’s and why’s.

I thought this view from a crew chief’s perspective to be important to the special operations community. We are not simpletons, rushing to and fro the machines we love with documents or wash rags to wipe up oil. The machine our pilots and crews and teams fly on, rely on, are in our hands. We cannot afford a single error. We are demanding, we are constant, and we are dedicated to this mission. The Pave Low was so maintenance intensive that it required constant repairs to be ready for flight and mission. Every one of those missions that we’ve heard about and many that will never see the light of print occurred because a dedicated team of crew chiefs made it happen (Not to take away from our beloved specialist, but I leave their point of view to one of those respected men and/or women).

My journey started in that school house and I was only partially exposed to special operations world. Kirtland AFB offered us a bigger view, but it wasn’t until I landed at the Big Show that I would meet some of the best men and women I have ever known. I hope to have the opportunity to share some of the stories and experiences in the Air Commando Association Journal over the coming months and years. All of it from the perspective of a knuckle dragging, oil-soaked, sweaty perspective of a Pave Low Crew Chief.

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