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TIKRIT, Iraq — Black Hawk maintenance crews are feeling the stress of perilous flights by fewer birds, more flight hours and duct tape repairs.

“We’re literally flying them into the ground,” said Capt. Joe Sharrock of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment.

Soldiers said they are flying three times as many missions as normal, and with only half the fleet of Black Hawks they had during the first Gulf War. Sharrock said that shortage, combined with the challenge of scrounging parts, means that if all repairs were done by the book “all our aircraft would be grounded.”

Maj. Scot Arey, the operations officer for the battalion, said his Black Hawks would see 350 flight hours per month back home at Fort Hood, Texas. In their first month in the Middle East, they flew 1,500. That’s slowed, somewhat, to about 1,000 per month.

“They’re like rental cars,” said Sgt. 1st Class Warren Koslowski. “You’re doing three times as much work with half as many aircraft.”

So far, the battalion’s Black Hawks have flown some 10,000 hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom — with no crashes. Every time someone brought this up during a recent interview, the sergeant rapped on a table, adding, “Knock on wood.”

Other crews haven’t been as fortunate — though enemy fire, not disrepair, appears the major culprit. Six of the Army’s 290 Black Hawks in Iraq have gone down, all but one crash the result of apparent attacks, according to news reports and military sources. A total of 15 helicopters of all types have gone down in or around Iraq; only four of those are believed to be accidental. The rest were caused by confirmed or suspected strikes.

Most recently an Army Kiowa Warrior helicopter crashed south of Mosul on Jan. 23, killing two pilots. Initial reports did not mention hostile fire. On Jan. 8, a Black Hawk medical transport crashed near Fallujah, killing nine soldiers. A witness has said a rocket hit the helicopter.

This weighs heavily on the minds of maintenance troops charged not only with keeping the birds fit and aloft, but also with flying them to make sure they’re safe.

Attending the funerals of other units’ helicopter crews “hits home,” Koslowski said. “It really does.” Sharrock lost a friend, a fellow captain, in a crash in early January.

It all reminds them of how important, and how dangerous, their own jobs can be.

“Everybody is out there flying low and fast, trying to keep ahead of the threat, and as a maintenance company, we have to do a lot of flights at altitude,” said Warrant Officer 2 William Noyer. “We have no choice.”

Flying high and slow is much more dangerous; the target is easier to hit than a streaking low-flying fighter. “A Black Hawk, though a very maneuverable aircraft, is completely slow compared to an F-16,” Noyer said.

Guerrillas specifically target Black Hawks, Sharrock said, because they carry personnel and supplies and are less likely to turn back to fire on insurgents than an attacked Apache.

“It’s a real score when they hit an aircraft,” Sharrock said. “It’s a real morale boost for them.”

The 2-4 belongs to the 4th Infantry Division, whose aircraft fly from Baghdad to the Iranian border in a patch of Iraq the size of West Virginia. They’ve coped not only with broken choppers and enemy fire, but also the blast of summer heat and a landscape of ever-sprouting electrical wires to dodge.

The desert has not been kind.

“The first three months we were here, we went through an enormous amount of engines,” said Spc. Kenneth Back. Though the Black Hawk’s blower system works well, the sand was too much.

The natural heat — 140 degrees on the tarmac in summer, so hot the temperature gauge spun clear round to give an erroneously cool reading — combined with the engine’s own combustion.

“You know what happens when you heat up sand? You get glass,” Noyer said. “We’ve had some buildup. ... It’s a glass furnace.”

Despite all this, the soldiers of the 2-4 believe their unit’s hard work, sharp eyes and tenacity are the reasons for their clean crash record.

“It’s all like a well-oiled machine,” Koslowski said. “It’s not to say some of the units that have had problems aren’t well oiled. But it’s an odds game.”

Without this tool-wielding machine, aviators like Arey wouldn’t get very far. “The maintenance guys are kind of the unsung heroes,” Arey said.

The 4th Infantry Division, the coalition military press office, the Department of the Army and the Pentagon all deferred questions on the Black Hawks’ use or did not reply. But the 2-4’s concerns about helicopter safety echo those of some senior military leaders.

“We don’t know what this operation tempo has done to our soldiers (and) to aviation,” Brig. Gen. E. J. Sinclair, commanding general of the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., said at a recent symposium in Washington.

A press release by the Association of the United States Army, which sponsored the symposium, also quoted Lt. Gen. Richard Cody, Army deputy chief of staff for operations, estimating the cost of refitting the aviation fleet could top $1.6 billion.

At the same event, Col. Ray Woolery, Army project manager for aviation reset, said the biggest chore is coming up with all that repair money, actually buying parts, then finally installing them — all without slowing down flight operations.

In the meantime, the soldiers of 2-4 Aviation and their fellows make do.

“The old days of improvise, adapt and overcome,” Noyer said. “We deal with that on a daily basis.”

And the troops are working as hard as their helicopters. Some, like spent rubber-band props, are spinning down.

“Everyone here’s tired,” Koslowski said.

Noyer said his 2-year-old son points at the telephone back home and calls it “Da-Da.” Koslowski said several soldiers have gone through divorces since deploying. Six more in his platoon face serious marital problems. He called the feeling “cabin fever with bullets.”

“Are we patriotic? Of course we are,” Sharrock said. “We didn’t join to make money. A lot of these kids joined after 9/11.”

The captain said that when a maintenance soldier has that blank look in his eyes, it’s not from the ravages of combat. Those 1,000-yard stares come from something else.

“It’s from seeing too many wrenches,” he said.

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