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Air Force Spark Tank winning idea takes next step at 97th AMW

Master Sgt. Christopher Joyce, a boom operator assigned to the 56th Air Refueling Squadron, examines a new boom pod bed Nov. 20, 2018, Altus Air Force Base, Okla. The new boom pod was the winning idea on the Air Force Spark Tank and will be added into every KC-135 Stratotanker.

Master Sgt. Christopher Joyce, a 56th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator, examines a new boom pod bed Nov. 20, 2018, Altus Air Force Base, Okla. The new boom pod was the winning idea on the Air Force Spark Tank and will be added into every KC-135 Stratotanker. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Master Sgt. Christopher Joyce, a boom operator assigned to the 56th Air Refueling Squadron, examines a new boom pod bed Nov. 20, 2018, Altus Air Force Base, Okla. The new boom pod was the winning idea on the Air Force Spark Tank and will be added into every KC-135 Stratotanker.

Two boom operators assigned to the 97th Air Mobility Wing test a new boom pod bed in the back of a KC-135 Stratotanker Nov. 20, 2018, Altus Air Force Base, Okla. The new boom pod bed was created to help with the neck and back problems experienced by many boom operators. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Altus Air Force Base, Okla. (AFNS) -- Positioned next to every KC-135 Stratotanker boom operator in training is an instructor lying on a pad in the boom pod guiding them through training.

These beds and platforms are positioned in a way to provide a vantage point over what the students are doing, but not without cost.

That cost was highlighted by Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda, a 22nd Refueling Wing boom instructor at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, while he was stationed at the 97th Air Mobility Wing as an instructor.

During a meeting with leadership, Bachleda made the issues facing the squadron clear to his command.

“Our commander came down and asked if there were any issues going on within the squadron,” said Bachleda. “I brought up the neck and back issues caused by the current pod design and when we were asked what we were doing about the issue, we realized we weren’t doing anything about it.”

Shortly after, Bachleda worked with others and made a prototype pad for instructors to lie on in the boom pod to present to the Air Force Spark Tank. Spark Tank is a program run by the Air Force in hopes to recognize innovation. Airmen around the world develop and present technologies that would improve Air Force functions and processes.

In early 2018, Bachleda’s idea won and is sponsored by the Air Force for implementation.
On Nov. 20, 2018, the first prototype was put into a KC-135 on Altus Air Force Base to allow instructors to give immediate feedback on the new pod.

“We’re here testing the boom instructor modification that was on Spark Tank,” 2nd Lt. Victoria Ponders, a 72nd Air Base Wing program manager at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. “We installed a new panel with a new cushion on a KC-135 so that instructors could actually try it out and we could make sure it wasn’t affecting their job.”
Approximately 15 boom operators from the 54th and 56th Air Refueling Squadrons gathered to try out the new set up.

“Nothing is going to solve anything right away,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Joyce, a 56th ARS boom operator. “This is definitely more comfortable though and makes it a lot easier on your back and neck.”

After sitting on the pad and trying it out, a survey was given for instructors to fill out. The changes requested in the surveys will likely be seen in the upcoming year.

“We’re expecting to see this out by the end of this summer,” Ponders said. “That depends on the flight tests and the feedback we received from the boom instructors, but our goal based on the feedback today is the end of the summer.”
While the pod has been in the testing phase for the past few months, this trial is one of the biggest tests the device will face.

“This feedback is incredibly valuable,” Ponders said. “It lets us see things that we can’t see in the program office. We can see the things that instructors do when they’re teaching and how they use the pad that they have now.”

Creating a new pad for boom operators to lie on may seem like a small step but it’s a major step in fixing a problem that has existed for years. Giving boom instructors a more comfortable work environment allows them to train Airmen more efficiently and help achieve the 97 AMW mission of forging global mobility.

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