Naples-based unit specializes in tough structural repair work on aircraft
April 16, 2003
In the desert near the Iraqi-Kuwait border, a Cobra AH-1 anti-tank helicopter had limped back from a mission after taking enough battle damage to guarantee it couldn’t fly another mission.
The damage was beyond the patching skills of the Marine unit maintaining the helicopter. But members of one repair group deployed to the region had the special equipment and manuals required to to get the copter flying again.
“Our team went in there during the dark and turned [the helicopter] around so it was ready to go before dawn,” said Cmdr. Francis Lukenbill from Naples, Italy, where he is in charge of the Naval Air Mediterranean Repair Activity.
“These repairs are normally done inside, where the floors are white, and it is always clean. The helo was dust-covered.”
NAMRA, as the unit is known, is the Navy and Marine Corps’ only unit in Europe with the skills and tools to make the complicated structural repairs.
While individual units can patch a hole in an aircraft’s skin, any damage to support struts, wings and other vital structures is considered depot level and requires a library of books, experience and tools from one of the three giant 6-foot toolboxes that deploy with the Naples-based unit.
“We call them artisans, because that’s what they are. It is an art,” Lukenbill said. “Think of it like a car. Anyone can change the oil. But if you are in an accident and rack up some damage, you have to go to a body shop.”
Normally aircraft needing depot-level repairs head back to one of the three depots in the United States, or one of the two overseas locations in Italy and Japan.
But the increased number of missions flown by Navy and Marine aircraft means less time for repairs, said Cmdr. Tim Dunigan, the activity’s executive officer.
The unit, which is a mix of Navy technicians and civilian experts, now has two three-man teams aboard the USS Harry Truman and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the eastern Mediterranean, plus a larger 10-man team in the Middle East that has spent time in Bahrain, Kuwait and southern Iraq.
The unit normally has a staff of 28, including seven civilians, but wartime has swelled its numbers to 52.
Repairs that NAMRA teams handle that change the structure of a plane or helicopter must be approved by an engineer before the depot technicians start work to ensure the changes don’t affect the aircraft’s flight.
Alex Balce, a civilian engineer deployed by NAMRA to Bahrain, ended up doing more than his typical duties when the Air Force borrowed his expertise for a repair to two KC-135 refueling tankers, which had each developed 2½-inch cracks in one wing.
“There was fatigue damage. Part of the skin underneath the wings cracked,” Balce said. “The Air Force has its own mechanics, but they couldn’t design the repair and there wasn’t an Air Force engineer there.”
Rather than ground the planes, Balce’s credentials were forwarded to his Air Force equivalents in the States for review and approval.
Another tanker plane, this time from the Navy, required repairs after its refueling hose was reeled back into the plane too fast, cracking internal structures.
In addition to the special tools needed for each aircraft, there are enough manuals and updates on repair procedures to fill several ceiling-to-floor bookshelves in the Naples office. But almost all the manuals are available electronically through the Internet or on CDs, Balce said, reducing the number of books dragged out on a deployment.
It also means, he said, that planes get repaired whether the right manual was along for the ride or not — as long as an Internet connection is working.
Seeing a repaired aircraft that wouldn’t have flown otherwise head out on its next mission is extremely fulfilling, Balce said.
“You feel so satisfied,” he said. “You think ‘Hey, this would be OK even if I didn’t get paid.’”
Leah Bowers is a news correspondent working out of the Naples bureau.
Sailor's first deployment is as a civilian
After eight years of active duty in the Navy and another 20 years as a reservist, 53-year-old Alex Balce got deployed for the first time — as a civilian.
“My wife, Maria, said, ‘What? Now that you’re out?’” said Balce, who just returned from an assignment in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq.
Balce, an aerospace engineer, is one of seven civilians assigned to the Naval Air Mediterranean Repair Activity in Naples, Italy.
He’s also one of the few civilians serving alongside the military during the war, an experience, he said, that has been both frightening and fascinating.
“It was scary in Kuwait. You have to carry your gas mask everywhere, and we don’t get sidearms,” said the retired senior chief petty officer. “But I like the command and what I’m doing: I’m using my skills instead of managing.”
But Balce said his age, a couple of decades older than many of the young men and women deployed to the area, made the tour rougher than it would have been when he was still enlisted.
“I felt my age. There was a lot of walking, the heat and sandstorms,” he said. “My back was hurting.”
Balce and other civilians assigned to the Naples repair activity may be returning for another tour in the region. He said he might head to Bahrain in June.
“Going back worries me and my family, but if I have to go, I’ll go,” he said.
— Leah Bower