Before a flight, during a flight and well after a flight, there is one Marine who takes on the responsibilities of maintaining the aircraft, observing its safety and providing in-flight maintenance - the crew chief.
"Crew chiefs are the enlisted maintainers and flyers for the helicopter squadrons," said Capt. Eric C. Palmer, NATOPS officer, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "They take care of all the duties the pilots don't have, which is about everything in the back of the aircraft."
Crew chiefs observe obstructions in a pilot's path, as the pilot cannot see more than 180 degrees in either direction from the nose of the aircraft.
"The CH-53 doesn't have the best view around it, so we have to rely on the crew chief's eyes and ears during a flight," said Palmer, an Endwell, N.Y., native. "Being able to see things that the pilot can't is really one of the biggest aids of a crew chief."
According to Lance Cpl. D. L. Chewey, crew chief, HMH-361, they are required to know a little of everything on board the aircraft.
"Crew chiefs are required to touch on all aspects of the aircraft," said the Stilwell, Okla., native. "We have to know its limitations. We have to know our limitations. We are there to back up the pilots.
"When we fly, we all have a mission at hand," Chewey added. "Our mission is a mission as a team. You have your pilot and co-pilot. One will fly, and the other will navigate. Then you have a crew chief who will watch and listen to the helicopter itself. We are part of an aircrew, and we play an irreplaceable role."
However, the job of a crew chief, like any job, changes a little bit when they are deployed.
"While deployed, we are on standby all the time," said Cpl. Fidel R. Florez, crew chief, HMH-361. "As far as personal differences between being in garrison or in Iraq, over there we have our armor, weapons and side arms on, and it can be a little more stressful, as well.
"Here, we have about four to five hours to prepare for a flight," the Anthony, N.M., native, added. "Over there, we have a little more than an hour to get ready for a flight that could come up at any moment."
According to Palmer, crew chiefs will also take on extra responsibilities along with their original tasks while deployed.
"Most of their duties of safely helping the pilot operate the aircraft will be the same thing while deployed," said Palmer. "They'll have additional duties, such as keeping eyes out for enemies. They operate the .50-caliber machine guns as well."
The overall importance of a crew chief isn't always noticed, said Palmer.
"Crew chiefs are absolutely necessary," Palmer concluded. "They do a lot of things in the back of the aircraft that pilots just take for granted. They have an impeccable systems knowledge of the aircraft and are an indispensable, invaluable part of the CH-53 aircrew."