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AL ASAD, Iraq (March 14, 2008) — A bird’s anatomy – its feathers, hollow bones and intricate wingspan— enables the animal to take to the skies, soaring hundreds of feet above the earth. Other types of “birds,” like those powered by the ignition of three turbine engines, fly because of the behind-the-scenes work performed by Marines in coveralls.

These often grease-covered Marines continue to meet the daily challenges of keeping the aircraft of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361 at the ready.

In conjunction with the other maintenance departments of the unit, the “flight line” crew works an average of 20,000 man hours per month, an operational tempo seven times higher than stateside procedures.

Their efforts keep the squadron at an 88.3 percent mission capability rate, one of the highest in the area of operations, explained Capt. Jason Mitchell, a pilot for HMH-361.

“The maintenance department is the heartbeat of the squadron,” said Mitchell. “You could get rid of every other shop, but without maintenance, we wouldn’t be flying.”

Because of the fast-paced flight schedule, the flight line Marines are constantly on the job, crawling atop the large helicopters to repair and replace anything from gear boxes to rotor heads.

The mechanics work in the desert’s extreme temperatures, turning wrenches until they accomplish their assigned missions. The safety of the aircrew and passengers depends on them, and collateral duty inspectors ensure the integrity of each job.

Before a flight launches, the air crew looks over the aircraft once again, making sure it’s ready to go.

“We are in direct support of combat,” said Sgt. Tony Garavaglia, a collateral-duty quality assurance representative. “These birds are the work horses of the Marine Corps. Whether troops need to be moved or supplies need to be delivered, we have the capabilities to make it happen.”

Other than trouble-shooting and repairing broken parts, the maintenance Marines make it a priority to train their subordinates.

“We teach them to fulfill the roles of the more experienced mechanics so they can take over once we leave,” said Garavaglia, a St. Louis native.

After showing them how to do a job, the senior Marines take a step back in supervision, allowing the newer members of the unit to do the work until they are proficient enough to do it on their own.

“I enjoy being a part of this shop,” said Lance Cpl. William B. Shultz, a CH-53E engine mechanic. “The level of discipline and camaraderie allows us to function like a fined-tuned machine.”

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AL ASAD, Iraq (March 14, 2008) -- A bird’s anatomy – its feathers, hollow bones…