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Kansas Guard Airman innovates superior training method

Neidhardt designed and built a faux floor of a KC-135 to use as a cargo loading training simulator.

Master Sgt. Nathan Neidhardt, 190th Air Refueling Wing boom operator instructor, tightens tie-down straps to secure the MC 7 Air Compressor to the floor simulator at Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kan., January 18, 2019. Neidhardt designed and built a faux floor of a KC-135 Stratotanker to use as a cargo loading training simulator. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Emily Amyotte)

TOPEKA, Kansas (AFNS) -- With a high deployment tempo and limited aircraft, finding the aircraft available for boom operators to practice tying down cargo to the floor of the jet was almost always a problem.

Master Sgt. Nathan Neidhardt, 190th Operations Group aircrew training noncommissioned officer in charge, solved this problem by creating a fully-functioning cargo loading training simulator which checks all the boxes for improving safety, utilization of man-hours and logistics of cargo loading training.

What first sparked the idea to create a simulated KC-135 Stratotanker floor was the issues Neidhardt would continuously run into when trying to schedule a jet for training.

“It came up from a lack of aircraft since we’re so busy deploying,” he said. “Trying to schedule a cargo loading class with an actual aircraft was just hard. So the next best thing is to create a mock floor and use it.”

Previously, boom operators required an operational jet to perform this training. This caused hurdles and inconveniences for different entities around the base.

“While we were on the jet trying to train, the aircrew had to sit and twiddle their thumbs wasting valuable training time,” Neidhardt said. “Whereas with this simulator, it’s on our own time. We don’t need anybody there, it’s just the booms.”

In addition to wasted time, the previous method of training inside a KC-135 was often a safety hazard to Airmen and the aircraft. The indoor simulator also addresses these issues.

“We’re not in the jet where it’s dark, cold, wet and everything else,” he said. “It’s a controlled room where people can walk around and see different areas. It’s a better learning environment that allows them to make mistakes without the fear of damaging the floor.”

The plywood simulator perfectly resembles the floor of a KC-135, minus the materials used to construct it. Using references from his cargo loading handbook and knowledge of the jets he works with on a daily basis, Neidhardt was able to create a blueprint for the floor simulation, illustrating support beams and tie-down points in a grid-like pattern.

After one weekend and just under $3,000 in supplies, Neidhardt, his son and another Airman from the 190th Operations Group, Maj. Westley Broxterman had built a collapsible, indoor training simulator that would eliminate the need for a jet during cargo loading training.

This is helpful because it provides boom operators at the 190 Air Refueling Wing with more adequate training and ensures the safety of Airmen and valuable equipment on board the jet.

“At the end of the day, the boom operator is in charge of loading the cargo safely,” Neidhardt said. “If the cargo doesn’t get loaded safely, then there's a chance of that airplane being damaged or crashing. So it’s up to our booms to load cargo safely and properly because if he doesn’t, it affects the whole crew.”

Neidhardt believes that the cargo loading simulator has been a valuable investment for the Wing and the boom operators who will receive enhanced, innovative training.

“As an instructor and training NCOIC, my goal is to make every boom operator better than me,” he explained. “I want each boom operator to not settle for ‘just good’, but ‘the best.’ So when I train, I push them and I want them to be better than me because its a legacy thing. I did it for the booms and future booms.”

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