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AMC’s Phoenix Spark Tank competition recognizes innovation

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Tech. Sgt. Eric Holton, 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. presents his design for a KC-135 Stratotanker engine-specific maintenance platform stand during the 2018 Air Mobility Command Phoenix Spark Tank competition, where four finalists pitched their innovation ideas to a panel of judges at the Airlift/Tanker Association Symposium in Grapevine, Texas, Oct. 27, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jodi Martinez)

GRAPEVINE, Texas (AFNS) -- Air Mobility Command held its first-ever Phoenix Spark Tank competition at the Airlift/Tanker Association Symposium in Grapevine, Texas, where four finalists proposed their innovation ideas to top Air Force leaders and the president of VOX Space Oct. 26.

The competition, which is part of Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson’s innovation initiative, encourages Airmen of all ranks and careers generate innovative ideas that save time, money and maintain readiness.

Gen. Maryanne Miller, AMC commander, was one of the judges for the event and witnessed four of the best 73 ideas submitted to the Air Force Idea Scale Portal this year.

“Innovation is the engine of change,” Miller said. “We need to outsmart, outpace and outmaneuver future threats. Airman innovation will ensure this occurs.”
The winner of this competition came from Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.

Staff Sgt. Travis Alton, 19th Logistics Readiness Squadron, was the first to propose his idea to Miller and three other judges. The other judges were Gen. Mike Holmes, Air Combat Command commander; Chief Master Sgt. Larry Williams, AMC command chief; and Mandy Vaughn, VOX Space president.

Alton explained how his design came to fruition after recognizing how often cargo was damaged during airdrops due to an engineering defect within the release assembly of the M-1 cargo parachute.

Alton said the digital solution currently used by the Air Force costs roughly $20,000 per block, which is four times more than the faulty mechanical block. But Alton’s 3D-printed time block fail safe solution will cost less than a dollar per design and has the potential to eliminate all airdrop malfunctions caused by the faulty timer.

"At the end of the day, for less than a dollar, we can save millions," Alton said. "But let's think further than that. Think about the warfighter downrange that is reliant upon the Humvee, the Howitzer, and the ammunition to save their lives. Wouldn't it be a shame if their cargo was destroyed because they didn't have this one-dollar block installed?"

The second innovator came from Fairchild AFB, Washington, where Tech. Sgt. Shawn Roberge, 92nd Maintenance Group aircraft structural maintenance section chief, identified a solution to a problem that has plagued the aging KC-135 Stratotanker for years.

“Having 12 years of experience on the KC-135 aircraft, you begin to notice problematic trending areas of repair,” Roberge said. “One area in particular is the constant repair between the nose landing gear doors and the fuselage skin.”

Roberge identified the root cause of the problem occurred during towing procedures. Maintainers use a web belt to wrap around the door in tow, potentially damaging the landing gear doors and causing a significant amount of stress over time. Bent doors would catch on the aircraft frame, resulting in damage that costs $3,600 per repair. Roberge’s invention has the potential to achieve significant cost savings for the Air Force.

After multiple designs, Roberge developed an aluminum part that would rest inside the landing gear and cause no stress to the doors or the outer frame of the aircraft.

Roberge said he encourages Airmen to look at current processes and be empowered to find better and more efficient ways of performing the mission.

Another KC-135 innovation came from MacDill AFB, where Tech. Sgt. Eric Holton created a maintenance stand that will allow Airmen to reach and repair the 12 o’clock position of an engine.

Prior to the stand, safety regulations prevented Airmen from reaching certain areas of the engine.

The final innovation came from Tech Sgt. Alex Aguayo and his team in the 437th Maintenance Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. The teams’ simple design enables Airmen to paint C-17 Globemaster III tires by stabilizing the wheels on a bearing, which decreases the time it takes to paint the tires and the amount of time Airmen are around paint fumes. This securement also decreases the time Airmen handle the wheels, minimizing the chance of damage.

With the ability to be tailored for every type of aircraft tire, this idea could be implemented across every flight line in the Air Force.

The winners were announced during Miller’s closing address with help from a special guest, Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder. Branson was invited to the symposium to discuss how organizations can develop and implement a culture of innovation and leadership’s role in inspiring creativity.

Alton declared the ultimate winner, but each recipient’s impact will be realized across AMC.

“We’re going to send one on to the Air Force competition, but we’re going to implement the other three,” Miller said. “We’ve got Airmen every day giving it their best, breaking out of the box, taking us forward.”

Last year, it was an AMC Airman who won the Air Force’s first-ever Spark Tank competition for a proposal to reengineer the platform that boom instructors lay on in the KC-135, reducing neck and back injuries while increasing mission readiness.

Currently, Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda’s more ergonomic design was completed and gained approval for updated designs. The design focuses on manufacturability, safety, and modular manufacturing for greater scale across platforms. Pending testing, the new platform will begin roll out to the fleet in the spring of 2019.

Miller recognizes the importance of innovation to mission effectiveness and the need to harness Airman creativity toward success in contested environments.

“The Airmen that set the path before rose to the challenges of their time, and now it is our turn,” Miller said. “Our National Defense Strategy clearly defines our path. We are in a time of great power competition and we must be ready to compete, deter and win. Innovation will be key to our success.”

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