March 19, 2007

HLWW graduate loves being Chinook crew chief

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

“I love doing what I do. There is not another job I would rather do,” Army National Guard Spc. Will Pace said of his job as Chinook crew chief in Balad, Iraq.

Pace is a 2002 Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted graduate who is home on leave in Winsted for 14 days. He will be returning to Iraq March 22.

Pace loves his job so much he has re-enlisted for another six years. He will be serving in the Army National Guard until the year 2013.

He is stationed just north of Baghdad, about 15 minutes by helicopter, and flies in to the city almost every night, dropping off troops or cargo.

He is a crew chief on an aircraft called the Chinook helicopter. The Chinook is a tandem rotor heavy-lift helicopter. Its top speed is 196 mph.

The Chinook helicopter has been a very dependable and safe means of transporting supplies and troops to the area, and space on board is precious, according to Pace.

“There is not another aircraft I would rather fly on,” Pace said.

A Chinook has hooks under the aircraft and can carry another Chinook or a Humvee. Pace has loaded two cars in the inside of the cargo unit, shipping the cars from one base to another. The cars fit so tightly, he had to crawl out of the moon roof to get out of the car.

“The Chinook can carry 33 guys seated, but we have fit as many as 50 in there. It can get a little cramped,” Pace said. “They are constantly asking if there is space for this person or if we can take this box to this place. It is the biggest helicopter over there.”

Five crew members are needed to fly the helicopter – a pilot, co-pilot, a door gunner, flight engineer, and a crew chief.

The flight engineer is generally older and more experienced than the crew chief, and he knows more about the flight and the mission.

A crew chief must be a mechanic who can fix the aircraft if anything happens during the mission. He is also responsible for loading and unloading before and after the mission starts.

There are three guns on board. One out of the back, and one on each of the front sides of the aircraft.

“If we are going from point A to B, we can’t just stop in the middle, for safety and intelligence reasons,” Pace said.

There are Apache helicopters that sometimes fly with the Chinook for protection if the mission is outside of a secured area, but that doesn’t happen very often, Pace said.

There are 14 Chinooks in Balad, and six of them must be ready every night.

All flights are at night. There is some switching in time so no patterns are set. They have come back from a mission when the sun is coming up, but they try not to do that, he said.

Each day, after Pace is ready to begin, he heads for the office to look at the flight schedule to see who and where he will be flying for that day.

The average mission Pace has been on is about five to six hours. Sometimes they fly up to eight hours, sometimes as little as two to three hours.

As far as being safe in Balad, Pace said the base is known as “Mortar-Ritaville.”

“We get hit every day with mortars. They go all over. Most of the time, you can’t always hear them because the base is so big. You hear alarms every day and there are Apache helicopters circling all of the time, watching,” Pace said.

Pace feels, “It is safer to fly than travel on the ground. But there is always danger.”

“The Chinooks get hit with mortars, and they fly with holes. As long as it doesn’t hit any hydraulics, we are good,” Pace adds.

Working the night hours in Balad coincides with regular day time hours in the US and that makes it easier to keep in touch with people back home.

“Communication is way better than it used to be. They have trailers set up that have rows of computers, phones, and web cams. It is not hard to communicate. You might have to wait for a phone about 15 minutes and the computers you hardly ever have to wait for,” Pace said.

Pace had no complaints about the food or sleeping arrangements either.

“They have such a wide variety of food that it is easy to find something that you do like.”

“We were sleeping in tents for awhile, but now we are sleeping in a trailer. There are three rooms per trailer and you share a room with somebody else. It is not very big – a little smaller than the size of a bedroom. But it is a bed, not a cot. There is also a locker and drawer space.”

Pace is supposed to only work six days a week, but most of the time, he works seven, which he does not mind because it makes the time go faster.

Sand and heat are two conditions that are hard to work in.

“Sand is the worst thing. It gets everywhere, in your eyes, and electronic equipment. We have air conditioning in our room windows and it blows through and everything gets dusty,” he said.

The heat has gotten to around 130 degrees, but when Pace left, it was in the 70s, and at night the high 40s, which Pace called perfect flying weather.

He enlisted in the Army National Guard in September of his high school junior year, the day after Sept. 11. That was his reason for enlisting, although he had been talking to a recruiter earlier.

“I never had any background in aviation, but ever since I was a little kid I have always been fascinated with it. The recruiter said there was an aviation unit out of St. Paul where I could work and so that pretty much sold me,” Pace said.

Because he was only 17 years old at the time, he needed his parents’ permission. His mom, Shirley Carlson of Winsted, was very supportive right away. His dad, Tom Pace of Champlin, was a little harder to convince.

“My dad was a little skeptical. It wasn’t that he didn’t think I should join. His dad was in the military. He just thought I should wait until I was 18.”

However, it was something that Pace wanted, and eventually his dad did give his approval.

It took another year before Pace finally shipped out for basic training, in September 2002. He was definitely ready by then.

Looking back, Pace feels that basic training was not as hard as it seemed at the time.

“When you are going through it, they are strict. There is a lot of physical training and mental training. They are also teaching you everything you can learn about the military,” Pace said.

After basic training, Pace headed to Fort Eustis in Virginia for 14 weeks of Black Hawk training.

In April of 2003, he was finally done. Then, his training in St. Paul was one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.

In 2005, there was a reorganization of all of the aviation units, and a Chinook unit was started out of Minnesota. Pace and a friend, who was in basic training with him, volunteered.

The Chinook helicopter training was from January to February of 2006. Pace’s training was only for one month because of his previous Black Hawk helicopter training.

When he volunteered for the Chinook unit, Pace knew he was volunteering for Iraq.

“l just wanted to go and see what it was like. I had never been out of the country,” Pace said.

“I think it is harder for the families at home than it is for us over there,” Pace added. “We are busy seven days out of a week. We have enough time to eat and sleep. I might get online and talk to my mom or my fiance, Krystal Rojina, for a little bit, but I am pretty much busy all of the time.”

“When I think about it, six months have already gone by over there. The time has gone so fast.”

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