Army Corps reaches new heights with pilot engineers
By John Budnik, the Public Affairs Office
Slicing through the air, the rotor blades spin faster than the eye can see while attached to the body of the aircraft. The smell of exhaust permeates the air above the tarmac and a loud rhythm of dual engines penetrates the ear. Systems - check. Avionics - check. Crew, passengers and mission equipment - check.
The cockpit of a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter isn't a typical scene to find two unique civil engineers the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Alaska District has to offer. The air above Southcentral Alaska is where Maj. Eric Marcellus and Capt. Robert Weakland spend time training as pilots in the Alaska Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment.
In their civilian jobs, Marcellus is a civil engineer in the Construction-Operations Division, and Weakland is a civil engineer in the Geotechnical and Engineering Services Branch.
"Flying in Alaska is pretty cool," Marcellus said. "The area is so big, and most of it you can't reach any other way than flying."
It is rare for the same Corps projects to require both of their engineering expertise. If not for the guard and some sporting activities, they might not know each other.
"We play basketball together on the Corps' team," Weakland joked. "But we fly together more than we work together."
Adorned on Weakland's cubicle wall at the district is a poster showing cutouts of the technical intricacies of the Black Hawk, a helicopter that has been affectionately labeled as the Army's workhorse. These pilot engineers have a lot in common beyond their service to the Corps and the National Guard. Both share a passion for the sky that each has cultivated since childhood.
"Ever since I was a kid, I'd always go to the air shows at Fairchild Air Force Base," Marcellus explained, a native of Spokane, Wash. "I'd always go to the fairs and get all of the posters of helicopters and jets."
Engineers first, pilots second
Marcellus was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army after completing the ROTC program and earning a civil engineering degree from the University of Idaho. He established a strong foundation for his future while in the military by achieving a master's degree in engineering management from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
After six years of active-duty service, his first civilian job took him to the U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center at Fort Greely, Alaska.
While living in Delta Junction, he realized his military career wasn't over. Marcellus decided to join the guard. In order to train, he had to commute nearly 670 miles round trip to Anchorage at least once a week. The logistics to fulfill his duties as a guardsman put a strain on his family, so his wife decided to do something about it.
Marcellus recollected the story of the Corps phoning him to schedule an interview for his current job.
"I get a phone call one day, and they said, 'We want to interview you,'" he recalled. "I said 'Great, what job is that?'"
He confirmed with his wife that she applied for him. Nonetheless, Marcellus seized the opportunity to shift his engineering career closer to his guard duties.
Weakland said he calls Anchorage, Alaska, home though he was raised in a military family and traveled extensively as a youth. He started his career serving his country as well. In 1991, he enlisted in the Air Force as a general purpose vehicle mechanic and spent four years on active duty at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
After his military service, he dabbled in various career fields, from working as a mechanic in the private sector to bartending to even owning a hamburger stand named "Cubby's" in the remote village of Dillingham.
During these ventures, Weakland pursued a civil engineering degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage. A student internship with the Alaska District evolved into full-time employment.
As a civil engineer with the Corps, he volunteered to deploy in support of a project called Restore Iraqi Electricity in 2004. During the eight-month tour inspecting schools, power plants and other buildings, Weakland said he became familiar with Baghdad from working in the area. This new intimate knowledge would serve him well in the future but from a different perspective.
After seeing many Black Hawks while in Iraq and even getting a ride in one, the experience was life-changing.
"This is pretty nice," he said coyly. "I wonder if I'm too old to do this."
After joining the Alaska National Guard and branching into the same aviation unit, Marcellus and Weakland missed each other by a few months at Fort Rucker, Ala., where they attended flight school in 2006.
Though they may not have been in the same class, they shared the same rigorous curriculum. Weakland described it as "constant studying and rote memorization." One particular course involved learning wilderness survival techniques hands-on after a simulated crash.
It was tough for Weakland, who admitted that he does not prefer to be in the presence of eight-legged creatures.
"It wasn't good for me because I don't like spiders," he said. "Those woods are just loaded with them."
The desire to fly helicopters motivated these engineers to rise above the hardships and fears of the school. The payoff was lifting from the ground.
"The best part of flight school is flying," Marcellus said. "Flying helicopters is great. It is one of the more exciting aircraft to fly because you can fly really low right over the treetops, they're very maneuverable and can land pretty much wherever you want to."
Weakland remembers his experience with fond memories.
"Looking back, it was the most fun I've ever had," he explained. "It was one of those things you can't quite enjoy because you're constantly being pushed on to the next level."
The flight school experience may be a distant memory for them now, but as pilots for the guard, they're required to fly a minimum number of hours to maintain their proficiencies. Aside from general training, the Black Hawk has given both Marcellus and Weakland unique missions in the cockpit.
Weakland deployed to Iraq again in 2010, but this time with the aviation regiment. He doubled his total flight time there, which climbed to nearly 1,300 hours. This time he was traveling over Iraq and not across it.
"Even though it was six years later, it all came back to me," he said. "My past experience helped in my mission. I recognized the places, and I knew a lot of their history."
Marcellus has about 500 total flight hours. He helped fly the Black Hawk that made one of the biggest discoveries in Alaska's military aviation history.
While flying with officers from another brigade, a crew chief spotted an aircraft wheel on top of the ice near Colony Glacier, located about 50 miles east of Anchorage.
After sending pictures of the debris to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii for verification, authorities determined that the wreckage was from an Air Force C-124 Globemaster that crashed into Mount Gannett and had been missing since 1952.
"My sister sent me an article from Washington about one of the relatives of somebody who had died in that crash," Marcellus said. "It gives people closure of what had happened. It was nice to see that something you had found was able to give someone a little more comfort in this world."
Flying with the Corps
The Alaska District is in the unique position of having two Army aviators on staff as full-time engineers. According to Marcellus and Weakland, any active-duty and uniformed soldier can fly in a Black Hawk or other passenger-carrying military aircraft - including the Corps' commander and deputy commander.
"The guard supports active-duty and Department of Defense missions in addition to our regular duties," Marcellus explained.
The process becomes more difficult when civilians are involved and are required to fly on missions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employs approximately 37,000 civilian employees worldwide. When the Alaska District requests flight service provided by the guard, Weakland and Marcellus can facilitate the administrative process of structuring a flight plan with the required personnel.
This summer, they flew Col. Christopher Lestochi, commander of the Alaska District, and Maj. Mark DeRocchi, deputy commander, to Galena. The village was devastated by spring flooding along the Yukon River, and the Corps was assigned to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency with recovery efforts.
"They each have very specialized skill sets as engineers and as pilots," Lestochi said. "They're able to bring both of them together in service to the Army and nation. I think that's pretty spectacular."
Lestochi added that it is particularly helpful when flying over a project site to be able to discuss engineering issues with the pilots. Fulfilling his Corps duties, Weakland helped with the village's levee assessment after the flood. While flying over the site with Lestochi, he was able to point out various engineering aspects of interest to the commander.
Performing such a flight mission is a win-win situation. It allows Weakland and Marcellus to gain their necessary training hours and support the guard's mission readiness while the Corps is able to see firsthand work being done in remote areas.
"It's all on the up and up, two birds with one stone," Weakland said. "We get something accomplished."
It is not always guaranteed these two aviators will fly every Corps mission together, but the guard's flexible scheduling system increases the chances when the district requests service.
Since 2013, Weakland and Marcellus also have flown Corps personnel for a government-to-government meeting with the village of Tyonek, surveillance of flood erosion near Talkeetna and scouting the Essayons while it dredged the Cook Inlet Navigation Channel near Anchorage.
Marcellus admits that the duties of being both an officer and aviator in the guard can be demanding and require him to be gone from his civilian job. However, both pilots see the value of what they bring to the Corps.
"It's a good example of interagency cooperation," Marcellus said. "If I can help the Corps out by flying some of these missions or help navigate the process, then that's a way to say thanks."
Weakland continues to offer his guard duties to his employer as well.
"We do training flights all the time," he said. "If the Corps has a project within the Anchorage area, I can put eyes on it and have some accommodating, atypical aerial photographs taken."
The Black Hawk's versatility and "workhorse" reputation are what makes these aviators and their helicopters special.
"I like the mission," Marcellus said. "It can be inserting troops, sling loading howitzers, acting as a command and control vehicle, launching mines off of them or turning them into gunships."
Now when the radios crackle, dual engines groan and rotor blades chop the air, you will hear the sound of the Corps of Engineers reaching new heights.