Soldier-Geologist Maintains Helicopters in Iraq

March 29, 2018

A torque wrench squeals as it secures the bolts of a forward support tube onto a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter engine in a maintenance shop here March 23.

Army Spc Kathleen Scanlon, an aircraft power plant repairer with the Rhode Island Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, works with her fellow soldiers to troubleshoot and correct maintenance issues for the 449th Combat Aviation Brigade’s Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks flying in support of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.

“In a typical day, I might start out by helping a maintenance test pilot and another aircraft power plant repairer conduct an engine wash on a Black Hawk,” Scanlon said.

This ability of troubleshooting two very different aircraft contributes to just another day in the maintenance world for Scanlon. Aircraft power plant repairers supervise, inspect and perform maintenance on aircraft turbine engines and components ensuring airplanes and helicopters are safe and ready to fly.

Gaining Practical Mechanical Experience

“I joined hoping to become a pilot, but I chose to enlist as an aircraft power plant repairer instead of an officer candidate to guarantee that I’d be able to contribute to the aviation mission even if I never got the opportunity to fly,” she said. “I never had a chance to take auto shop courses in school, so taking the enlisted route was also a way to gain the practical mechanical experience I’d always wanted.”

Scanlon explained that during the pursuit of her doctorate degree in geology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, she came across awards of Army officers at the university that sparked her interest in aviation.

“I have always wanted to be a military aviator,” she said. “Halfway through my degree program, I came across [now retired Army] Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall’s Medal of Honor citation, describing his and Maj. Ed Freeman’s 16 hours of flights carrying supplies to wounded soldiers from the Ia Drang Valley under heavy fire during the Vietnam War. That led me to reading more about medevac, and I learned that medevac was part of the aviation mission in the Rhode Island Army National Guard.”

Scanlon said she enjoys the intricate details of aircraft, but she’s also drawn to another vocation in her civilian career.

Planetary Geology

“Planetary geology is a very broad field of study, but my career so far has mostly focused on two things: glacio-volcanic landforms, which are landforms that resulted from lava coming into contact with ice on Mars and relating climate models for ancient Mars to the locations of ancient Martian lakes and rivers whose dried-out remnants we can observe today,” Scanlon said.

She also said that she runs computer simulations that analyze weather on Mars four billion years ago, uses satellite photos to map lava flows and hikes across Western Australia to look for the oldest evidence of life on Earth further strengthening her research for life on Mars.

Joking Around

While Scanlon is only just approaching the two-year mark in her military career, she has already been a positive role model, sparking curiosity in her fellow soldiers.

The people she works with are her favorite part of being in the Army, she said. “Soldiers in D Company cheer each other’s successes, take care of each other when something’s wrong and have the sense of humor to make anything fun.”

She explains how her companions joke around by saying things like “PAGING DR. SCANLON” across the flight line. They also will ask if she can build them a time machine to undo something their buddy just did; or joke that she must hero-worship Elon Musk, want to fistfight Elon Musk, or that she secretly is Elon Musk.

She also said they ask her great, insightful planetary science questions they’d been wondering about, such as “Does Jupiter have a rocky surface in the same sense Earth or Mars does?”

Scanlon explained that she enjoys the different sides of her jobs in and out of the Army.

“I grew up aspiring to be an astronaut,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, if I have a full-time job physically exploring remote places on Earth while exploring space with satellites and rovers, and a part-time job either maintaining or flying gorgeously complicated aircraft in the service of my country, I’m living the dream whether I ever make it to space or not.”