TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Senior leaders from the 18th Air Force and Air Mobility Command joined aircrew members from the 21st Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, on a C-17 Globemaster III Aug. 12 to secure the implementation of the ever Phoenix Spark initiative.
Gen. Carlton Everhart II, AMC commander, Lt. Gen. Giovanni Tuck, 18th AF commander, Brig. Gen. Lee Payne, AMC surgeon general and Chief Master Sgt. Shelina Frey, AMC command chief, flew alongside the BEEliners on a contingency mission to see firsthand the newly developed mounted electronic flight bag holder – an improvement developed and implemented through Phoenix Spark.
Phoenix Spark is a base-level innovation program designed to organically connect and work with industry, academia and the Department of Defense in order to deliver tomorrow’s tools to the warfighter today. Through the program, Airmen were empowered to quickly and efficiently gain approval for the new EFB mount.
Now, it is scheduled to replace the previous EFB suction cup mounts in all 223 C-17s in the Air Force’s fleet.
“This is just one example, the first example, of something that will be successful because of Phoenix Spark,” said Capt. Steven Noller, 21st AS pilot. “General Everhart is hoping this will be a catalyst for people to try and put things forward so we can innovate quicker and quicker.”
The foundation for Phoenix Spark began in early 2016 at Travis with a grassroots effort initially called the Travis Innovation Office. The Innovation Office allowed Airmen space and resources to meet in their free time, work on projects and enhance their work spaces. After many iterations to create a viable model at the wing level, AMC signed off on a charter creating the first Phoenix Spark office in the command.
“The Phoenix Spark program allows us to make innovative ideas, bring them up and influence them quicker into our community (rather) than driving them all the way up the chain, taking months to years at a time,” said Noller. “It gives wings the ability to accept some of that risk and implement ideas within months.”
The EFB mount – which was developed and approved in about one month by personnel at Travis – exemplifies both the streamlined process and crowdsourcing innovation strategy Phoenix Spark seeks to establish.
“We’re working together with our maintenance team here, and we’re working together with other wings,” said Maj. Michael Price, 60th Operations Group chief C-17 evaluator pilot. “The initial idea actually came from (Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina), and we were able to move the ball forward using the Phoenix Spark program.”
To pass an idea through the typical approval process, an Airman would submit his or her proposal first through the wing chain of command, then through the major command, said Capt. Spencer Turek, 60th OG EFB officer in charge and KC-10 Extender pilot. The proposal would then be ‘racked and stacked’ against other ideas, where an assigned team decides which to prioritize and which to postpone. The prioritized ideas would finally be sent to a systems programs office team who would take the ideas received, brainstorm solutions and eventually approve or deny the request.
From start to finish, the process takes an average of two to four years for approval, said Turek. Once approved, another two to three years is estimated before implementation – costing the Air Force millions of dollars along the way.
“We’re trying to implement solutions at a faster rate,” said Price. “The current system is not designed to keep up with the demands of technological change, which happens at lightning speed. We’re trying to do something that’s a little more agile that can keep pace with the change in technology.”
The first solution the team tackled addressed a well-known problem among AMC pilots: the suction cup holder previously used to secure EFBs was unreliable and often came loose from its place on the aircraft’s windshield.
These suction cups were originally designed to hold the electronic tablet version of EFBs when they were introduced in 2012. Previously, aircrews carried hard copy publications with them on every mission, equating to hundreds of pounds of paper. The EFBs – now condensed into a single tablet application – contain all the information aircrews need to fly, including flight approaches and airfield data.
While the electronic EFB has significantly improved efficiency and cost effectiveness, the old approach plate holder used to secure paper EFBs was still lingering on the aircraft. Combined with the faulty suction cup mounts, the design posed problems to mission safety and success, said Maj. Dominik Niziol, 21st AS pilot.
“Just at (Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington) in the past four to five years, (personnel) noticed a $5.3 million increase in damage to the C-17 oxygen panel and the communications panel due to falling EFBs,” he said. “With that being only a portion of C-17s (in the Air Force fleet), you’re looking at potentially millions of dollars per year in damage from these suction cup mounts. That’s a known financial cost.”
Additionally, the suction cups were mounted on the aircraft’s windshield, reducing pilots’ field of vision and posing a challenge when scanning for threats, said Niziol.
“Our solution, at maximum, to outfit the entire fleet (every C-17 in the Air Force), was $40,000,” said Turek.
Addressing a solution through Phoenix Spark sped the process along considerably, said Tech. Sgt. Nathaniel Harris, 60th OG EFB noncommissioned officer in charge and a former C-17 crew chief.
“Phoenix Spark puts the power in our own hands to identify better, cheaper, faster ways to innovate,” he said. “As General Everhart says, we need to move at the speed of war.”
The new EFB mount was quickly designed and developed to fit two modifications of C-17s. Within one month, Everhart flew with the 21st AS, experiencing the benefits of the new mount directly from the cockpit.
“Through flying with us, he was able to see what we were struggling with and having to find workarounds for,” said Niziol. “It gives him that situational awareness that when he starts making policy decisions, he can take that into account.”
In terms of tangible impact, the EFB mount saves valuable man hours in maintenance, as there is less chance a C-17 will need panel repairs due to falling EFBs. It also reduces maintenance costs in the C-17 fleet from an estimated $1 million per year to about $40,000.
Intangibly, the mount provides ease of use and increased safety for pilots, who rely on the EFB during missions and critical situations, said Noller.
“Having the EFB right in front of you and not having to deal with it on the window really helped out a lot with making decisions that could potentially affect pilots way down the road,” he said.
The EFB mounts will likely have a positive effect on the 21st AS. In 2016, the BEEliners completed almost 600 sorties, flying more than 8,000 hours – the most hours of any squadron in the Air Force. With such a high operations tempo, ease of use of critical equipment makes a big difference, said Niziol.
With Everhart’s buy-in, the new mounts are scheduled to be implemented in C-17 cockpits immediately, starting with aircraft owned by AMC. It’s a positive outcome not only for the aircrew and maintenance members it will benefit, but for the Phoenix Spark program as a whole, said Niziol.
“The Phoenix Spark program is beyond just pilots and aircrew,” he said. “The intent of it is to make a local, innovative solution, and if it’s so good that it helps locally (at the base level), eventually it could spread around the Air Force to improve everyone’s lives. (The program) allows people to make decisions quickly and see the results within their (career) cycle to breed that mindset of innovation among all Airmen.”
In a letter to the Total Force in early August, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright released their newest Air Force priorities. Two in particular reflect the mindset of Phoenix Spark: “Cost-effectively modernize … to increase the lethality of the force,” and “Drive innovation … to secure our future.”
The EFB mount serves as the promising beginning to fostering a culture of innovation and modernization, said Niziol.
“It proves that the Air Force believes in innovation at the lowest level to solve problems,” he said. “It will empower Airmen to believe they can actually make a change.”