CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan --
A Marine Corps sergeant in Afghanistan who unearthed a never-before-seen maintenance issue in a UH-1Y Huey was recently awarded by the Marine Corps for his potentially lifesaving find.
The sergeant was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal in a ceremony at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, Jan. 12.
Sgt. Christopher Lemke, a mechanic with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, nicknamed the "Gunfighters,” regularly conducts inspections on the squadron’s UH-1Y Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters.
But during a routine phase inspection of a Huey in late December, Lemke, a native of Macomb, Mich., uncovered something that could save countless lives. Phase inspections are regular checks on an aircraft’s various components to ensure they are safe.
Underneath the UH-1Y Huey, in the aircraft’s transmission compartment – an area so difficult to reach that maintainers call it the “hell hole” – Lemke found something wrong.
“When two metals rub together, it creates this black liquid, and that’s what I found,” Lemke said.
The transmission pylon beam and the main beam joint, which secure the aircraft’s transmission to the airframe, were disintegrating.
“This failure represented an extreme risk to the aircraft and aircrew,” his award citation reads.
The citation goes on to state that Lemke’s finding led to a Corpswide inspection, resulting in an engineering advisory report addressing a manufacturing defect found on multiple UH-1Y aircraft.
“No one else had ever found such an issue, but when we looked at another aircraft we had in phase, it had the same problem. There was a fault in the design of the aircraft,” Lemke said.
Lemke was not scheduled to inspect that part of the helicopter as there had never been an issue in the history of the aircraft, but he explained that Marine Corps aircraft maintenance demands more than completing the minimum requirements.
“That’s how I was trained – it’s the Gunfighter way,” Lemke said of his squadron. “Our job isn’t just replacing things. If we don’t do it right, that’s someone’s life.”
Lemke’s leadership said that they are hardly surprised by his diligence.
“It’s no surprise to me, he’s always gone in there and done his job the right way,” said Staff Sgt. Ricardo Paez, Lemke’s supervisor, and a native of Austin, Texas.
Lemke said he hopes younger mechanics in the squadron – the privates first class, lance corporals and corporals – see that as aircraft maintainers, they hold lives in their hands.
“I’m 24 years old and the responsibility we hold for our age is astronomical,” Lemke said. “I hope the junior guys around me realize that and go out and provide combat-capable aircraft for the Marines on the ground.”