NEWPORT NEWS —The Army celebrates a birthday today — 239 years old, if you're counting — and while the nation's senior service is getting older, it isn't getting bigger.
Defense cuts and military drawdowns will force the Army to squeeze more life out of current equipment. Perhaps that's why, prior to holding a pre-birthday celebration at Fort Eustis on Thursday, the Army offered a look inside a little-publicized but critical unit: the 128th Aviation Brigade.
If soldiers want to fix Army helicopters, they come through here. The brigade moves some 6,000 young soldiers through its facility each year, upwards of 1,800 at one time. The training involves classroom instruction, computer-based virtual environments and hands-on work.
"This is the only place where the Army trains any aviation maintainers," said Col. J.R. Rigole, brigade commander.
It is a gargantuan task, and not only because of the technical training involved. The soldiers come to the 128th straight out of boot camp. They're still learning to be soldiers, and when it comes to mechanical skills, they might not know how to change the oil in their car, let alone fiddle with advanced avionics.
"You're taking somebody that doesn't have a mechanical background, and we show them — this is a Phillips screwdriver — it's really at that level," Rigole said. "A lot of these kids come in, they've never worked with tools, never worked with their hands."
But they'll graduate in 17 weeks as journeymen, and that marks the beginning of their professional education. From the 128th, they join an operational unit and learn on the job.
But that 17-week turnaround is critical at a time of scarce resources.
"We're not going to have open-ended budgets anymore," Rigole said. "We just can't remove and replace. We've got to focus on our skills, be able to trouble-shoot and do smart maintenance."
And if soldiers-in-training want to focus on the venerable CH-47 Chinook, they will spend quality time with Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment, commanded by Capt. Christopher Quinlan, a former Chinook pilot.
For these soldiers, part of the Chinook experience involves working on a full-sized "trainer" aircraft. It is a CH-47F, the most current version, stripped of its propellers and surrounded by scaffolding and stairs so students can climb around, and into, the aircraft.
Even minus its propellers, there is no mistaking the Chinook. It has never been called sleek or stealthy, but the bus-shaped workhorse has earned undying dividends from the jungles of Vietnam to the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan.
"The design of the aircraft is perfect for what we try to do," Quinlan said. "We can put soldiers inside. We can put pallets of equipment — ammo, fuel, food, mail — anything you can think of."
For a military that is always trying to find the best new war-fighting tool, the Chinook has stood the test of time. The Defense Department has built five versions for the conventional Army and a separate version for U.S. Special Forces, Quinlan said.
"It flew in Vietnam, and it still does a lot for us, especially in Afghanistan with the high mountains," Quinlan said. "It can get to those high altitudes that other aircraft just can't get to."
A look inside the Chinook trainer shows just how far the aircraft has come. Its cockpit features high-tech screens and other imagery. It is a definite step up from the Chinook "D" version, 16 of which were parked on the other side of the facility, providing work for the students. One of those, Quinlan actually flew when he was in Afghanistan.
The D version still has older analog gauges and is a far sight removed from the high-tech trainer.
Quinlan said his students are more comfortable with the advanced version.
"The young soldiers are so tech-savvy, they're learning a lot faster," he said. "They can understand the screens and everything associated with it. There is a learning curve to it, but in the end, the technology is helping us trouble-shoot the aircraft, get it fixed and get it in the air."