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908th Successfully Navigating Difficult Mission Change, Eagerly Awaiting First Grey Wolf Helicopter

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner

On Nov. 20, 2020, then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett announced that Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama was selected as the candidate base to host the MH-139 Formal Training Unit. By the time Maxwell was officially named as the site for the FTU on June 10, 2022, the Air Force Reserve’s 908th Airlift Wing was well on its way to transitioning from a worldwide airlift mission in the C-130H Hercules aircraft to a training mission for the MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopter.

Over the past three years, the dedicated Citizen Airmen of the 908th have been busy gearing up for the new mission. The Grey Wolf will provide security and support for the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile fields and transport U.S. government officials and security forces. Other mission capabilities include civil search and rescue, as well as survival school and test support.

The transition from Hercules to Grey Wolf has not been easy.

“It’s the hardest, most complicated, multifaceted mission change the Air Force has ever taken on,” said Col. Craig Drescher, 908th AW commander in November of last year. Drescher retired in September of this year. “Not only is it hard to go from a fixed-wing, combat-coded unit to a rotary-wing, formal training unit, but we’re talking about an airframe that hasn’t even come off the factory floor yet. We don’t have anything stood up. We’re having to create everything as we go.”

Since that time, the 908th has made great strides in getting ready for its new mission. Over the last two years, the wing has awarded $34 million in construction and renovation contracts on nine projects to facilitate the mission change. The largest project, transforming an existing aircraft hangar into a simulator and academic building, is alone valued at $14 million.

Construction at the hangar-turned-academic building began in late July. When completed, the facility will house six training stations, including two operational flight trainers, a weapons simulator, a host and extraction trainer, a cockpit procedure trainer, and an integrated aircrew systems trainer. The operational flight trainers are fixed-base simulators incorporating a full-size crew station replication of the MH-139A cockpit

and rear aircrew stations. The integrated aircrew systems trainer is

a full-size nonoperational MH-139A used for inspection and pre-flight training.

MH-139A student pilots and special-mission aviators are expected to spend approximately two months training in the facility prior to their initial flights in the Air Force’s newest platform.

The Citizen Airmen of the 908th have been extremely busy since they first learned they would be getting a new mission.

Over the spring and summer of 2021, the wing executed the largest deployment in wing history while navigating the COVID pandemic and preparing for its new mission. Approximately 250 members of the wing deployed to various locations in Southwest Asia in the summer of 2021. In August of that year, a team from the 908th Aeromedical Staging Squadron assisted in the evacuation of personnel from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. They treated multiple critical injuries after the terrorist bombing on Aug. 26 and helped evacuate the 13 U.S. service members killed along with 18 others who were injured. After evacuating hundreds of military and civilian patients throughout the month, they were among the last personnel to leave Kabul on Aug. 30, only hours before the return of Taliban rule.

On April 2, 2022, the 908th’s 357th Airlift Squadron flew its last C-130H mission in a four-ship formation to the Gulf Coast and back. Within a week, the squadron’s last four C-130s were flown to their new home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The wing’s other C-130s went to Air Force bases in Ohio, Minnesota and Colorado.

With the last C-130s gone, the Reservists at Maxwell intensified their efforts to get ready for their new air frame and their new mission. The former Hercules operators and maintainers who opted to stay with the 908th ramped up their training for the Grey Wolf, which will replace the Air Force’s nearly 50-year-old aging fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters.

Several of the wing’s C-130 pilots chose to learn how to fly the helicopter so they could remain at Maxwell as instructors.

Their first step in this process was attending the TH-1H Rotary Wing Fundamentals course at Fort Novosel (formerly Fort Rucker), Alabama. Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Randall was the first member of the wing to complete the course in 2022.

“It was an honor to be the first member of the 908th to complete the initial training,” Randall said. “They have a very good training program at Fort Rucker. I think everyone of our members will come out of the course fully qualified.”

The four-month course is designed specifically to train helicopter pilots with previous experience flying fixed-wing aircraft.

The next phase of training before attending MH-139 familiarization is the TH-1H Instructor Training course, also at Fort Novosel. After completing this course, the graduates are serving as instructors there until the FTU is established.

One of the first things Drescher did to navigate the mission change at the 908th was set up the Program Integration Office in 2021. Anthony “Todd” Taylor, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, serves as the director of the PIO team.

“We are responsible for working with other leaders to ensure the 908th AW safely and efficiently converts from a tactical C-130 mission to the Air Force’s Formal Training Unit for the MH-139A helicopter,” he said in 2022.

Lt. Col. Jay Ference, 357th Airlift Squadron commander, is the PIO deputy director.

“This is probably going to be the hardest transition in the history of the Air Force,” he said. “But, I have no doubt that we’re up to the challenge. We have maintainers, for instance, who have an average of 10 to 12 years of experience. We have very decorated and accomplished maintainers.”

Many of those maintainers got their introduction to helicopter maintenance at a class on basic rotary systems at Maxwell in the summer of 2022. Master Sgt. Mike Cutter, 908th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief and expediter, and Master Sgt. William Little, 908th AW flight safety noncommissioned officer in charge, taught the class. Cutter was a C-130H crew chief and expediter who has more than 35 years of helicopter experience from his time in the Marine Corps and the Vermont Army National Guard prior to joining the Reserve. Little has more than 20 years of experience as a helicopter mechanic and avionics technician at Fort Novosel and has worked on AH-64 Apache, OH-58D Kiowa and the UH-72 Lakota platforms.

“The main purpose of these briefings was to give everybody some clarity as to what kind of aircraft we will be getting and to see the main differences between them,” Little said.

“This was just a basic introduction to the rotor system and how it ties in with the flight controls, which ties into everything,” Cutter said. “This is a big mind shift coming from a C-130 where they think, ‘this is my field and this is what I focus on,’ to working hand-in-hand with each other because that rotor doesn’t move without all of these systems.”

After their introduction to basic rotary systems, many 908th maintainers have continued to pursue helicopter maintenance training, including working with the Chevron Corporation in Picayune, Mississippi, which maintains the civilian variant of the MH-139, the AW-139.

Since January 2023, more than 20 maintainers from the 908th have spent a minimum of 30 days with their Chevron counterparts to learn how to effectively maintain these helicopters.

Master Sgt. Timothy Hill, 908th Maintenance Squadron dedicated crew chief, and Tech. Sgt. Lloydstone Jacobs, were two of the first 908th maintainers to embed with Chevron’s maintainers at their facilities.

“It was extremely beneficial for us to be at their site with them,” Hill said. “It gave us an opportunity to see all that they do, and to receive mentorship and build relationships with their maintainers.”

“I believe this is going to help speed up our process of transitioning to the MH-139A Grey Wolf,” added Jacobs.

At the November 2022 unit training assembly, one MH-139 from the 413th Flight Test Squadron at Duke Field, Florida, and two UH-1Ns from the 23rd Flying Training Squadron at Fort Novosel, made a welcome stop at Maxwell so members of the 908th Operations Group and the 908th Maintenance Group could get familiar with the incoming and retiring aircraft.

This was the first time at Maxwell that wing members had the chance to interact with their future mission and the legacy they are inheriting.

“It’s been very difficult,” Ference said at the November 2022 UTA. “We haven’t had aircraft here for the last seven months. So, this was an event to get the spark, the energy to say, ‘hey, this is what we’re going to be doing and we’re going to be getting these aircraft.’”

The first of the new MH-139A helicopters is expected to be delivered to Maxwell early in 2024. A total of 10 are scheduled to be delivered by the end of fiscal 2028.

The 908th AW’s economic impact on the local River Region of central Alabama is expected to increase with the mission change. Not including construction expenditures, the economic impact is estimated to increase nearly 40%, from $55 million to $75.5 million beginning in 2024.

From a personnel standpoint, the wing will continue to have about 1,200 total members, but the number of full-time employees at the wing, to include military personnel, government civilians and contractors, will increase from 240 to 420, with an additional 150 pipeline aircrew students cycling through every year.