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Spark Cell winner solves mid-air refueling problem


Tinkering with a small communication box in his home garage, recent Spark Cell winner Staff Sgt. Jeremie Anderson, 9th Special Operations Squadron MC-130J Commando II instructor loadmaster, discovered an innovation in mid-air refueling that changed the way loadmasters execute the mission.

“I got bored,” Anderson said. “My mind tends to start thinking and comes up with stuff. Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea on how to improve something.”

His idea began with a look at a feature of his job that wasn’t working at 100 percent. While an aircraft is being refueled mid-air and mid-mission, loadmasters onboard an MC-130J aircraft use colors to communicate when to execute instructions, akin to a stoplight at a traffic stop. These colors come from small colored lenses hanging off parachute cords, which loadmasters shine a light through to project the corresponding color to the user aircraft on when to go, stop and wait.

“A lot of our lenses, as they get old and the sun hits them, they fade, so our aircraft that’re getting fueled are left wondering which color was shown by us loadmasters,” Anderson said.

As the lenses fade, the color the user aircraft see would become more washed out, leaving them second-guessing what was about to happen. The tried-and-true process had to be changed, according to Anderson.

“(The process before) seemed very antiquated. Now, I love classic cars, so antiques are awesome, but not when it comes to relying on them to get a job done thousands of feet in the air.”

Anderson’s feel for practicality stems from a life of garage work and a lot of hands-on learning.

“My grandfather was a cabinet maker and my dad was a car and aircraft mechanic,” Anderson said. “If you tie the three of those together, you end up with me.”

“When I get home is when I usually work on projects, specifically after dinner,” Anderson explained. “That’s the time I start winding down and relax. That’s when I’ll walk to my garage, turn my lights on, and get to tinkering.”

The first step was drawing out what he envisioned the device would look like and how it would function. Sitting in front of his old, beat-up coffee table centered in his living room, with his TV turned on, Anderson got to work.

“I started it all off by drawing concepts and such. I didn’t like the first one, so I thought to myself ‘eh, I like drawing’ and drew another one,” Anderson said. “I can’t draw the Mona Lisa, but I can do technical drawings all day long. It’s weird, but relaxing to me, so it makes it easier to get what’s in my head onto paper. Once I did that, I started cutting wires and soldering.”

What came of those drawings was a prototype for an all-in-one device that would shoot different colored lights out depending on which of the multiple buttons on it was pressed. Essentially, it was a flashlight with colors built into it, eliminating the need to track down and use any lens, thus freeing one of the loadmaster’s hands.

This prototype needed to be tested by someone else, however. Anderson’s idea for how to go about this was to not force it.

“I come walking into the squadron with the first prototype, and I set it down,” Anderson said. “Next thing I know, the light’s gone and everyone’s playing with it. Some time goes by, I deploy and come back, and I have an email from my commander wanting me to submit my project to this ‘Spark Cell’ challenge.”

The Cannon Air Force Base Spark Cell is a program designed to help inspire a bottom-up culture of innovation at the squadron level across the base. Leadership plans on accomplishing this by collaborating with Airmen to identify problems then develop solutions in-house or with the aid of outside agencies.

“We’re on the cutting edge of innovation,” said Capt. Chad Carter, 27th Special Operations Aeromedical Squadron dental support element chief. “What Cannon (AFB) is doing is something the Air Force hasn’t done before.”

Carter has been heavily involved in the planning and structure of this new program. When Anderson’s idea came across the board, it went far with leadership and even earned top priority amongst all ideas brought to the table.

“(Anderson) is a poster child of what the Air Force needs more of,” Carter said.

With plans of rolling the device out to all MC/HC-130 squadrons across the Air Force to aid with night refueling missions, Anderson is working tirelessly, on-and-off duty, balancing his busy work life with his limited time at home.

He just finished finding a proper fitting battery for the device. The next step in the process, pushing out test models, could be the biggest moment in his eight-year Air Force career.

“We wouldn’t be where we are if there wasn’t someone before us asking if there’s a better way,” Anderson said. “We don’t stay on top when it comes to military advancement without change. But that’s just coming from Anderson. I’m always thinking of ideas, but to have one be accepted and used across the base and beyond is huge for me. Maybe my kind will be flying one day and use this light.”

“I just want a better future for those after me.”


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