TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – As a fuels distribution operator for Travis AFB’s 60th Logistics Readiness Squadron, Senior Airman Tanner O’Laughlin rarely spared a thought on the weather. His job—to ensure quality fuel makes its way into any of the numerous aircraft comprising Travis’ fleet—acted independent of it, and even if it didn’t, the base’s mission would compel him to carry out his work regardless.
That work was logged analogously, though, meaning the account of his duty made its way onto pieces of paper held at the mercy of the sometimes unreliable grip of a clipboard. All this made for a perfect storm… of paper.
“One day on the flight line, the clipboard set loose what was probably a dozen sheets of work logs, all taken immediately by the wind,” O’Laughlin said. “As anyone who knows how secure a location it is, random papers flowing around can represent a disastrous situation on the flight line. We all started frantically grabbing for papers. After we managed to get them all together, we happened to look over and see a maintainer a ways away recording his work on a tablet. Our next thought being, ‘Well, what the hell—why don’t we have that?’”
This question was a common one for 60th LRS Airmen who recently set about allocating innovation funds to bring the squadron’s processes into the digital age.
“A lot of what we’re doing is a no-brainer, but has nevertheless made a huge impact on cost-savings, man hour efficiency and accountability,” said Senior Master Sgt. David Janes, 60th LRS fuels superintendent. “However, some projects have come from the ingenuity of a handful of our Airmen, and current circumstances have been favorable enough as to allow us the avenues to proceed with prototyping them.”
Along with replacing clipboards with tablets, the 60th LRS has seen a floor-to-ceiling overhaul of their protocol, from updating their brick and mortar snack bar to revolutionizing the means of pressurizing fuel on the fly, cutting the needed man hours for the process from two hours to 45 minutes.
All this didn’t happen by accident, said Janes.
“We’ve been very deliberate in what kind of environment we wanted to create to make these ideas a reality,” he said. “In the end, we saw the most value in creating one that put the emphasis on fostering respect and worth in Airmen’s ideas.”
For Airmen like O’Laughlin, that environment is the difference between spinning his wheels and planting them on a path to new, uncharted territories for an Air Force he sees as ripe for an update.
“What we’re doing in the squadron now is unprecedented in other LRS squadrons around the Air Force,” he said. “It’s our leadership’s attitude of saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds awesome. Do it.’ that gives those of us who experience some of these problems and frustrations on a day-to-day basis the agency to approach each day with a mindset of owning the work we do; that this isn’t just Gen. Goldfein’s Air Force or Col. Nelson’s Air Force, but our Air Force.”
O’Laughlin, whose idea it was to construct a mobile fuel pressurizing manifold to replace the time-sapping to and fro sequence of yesterday’s LRS, recently had an audience with Brig. Gen. Linda Hurry, Defense Logistics Agency Aviation commander, regarding the pushing out of his prototype to the Air Force at large.
“In every LRS squadron—in every squadron, period—there exists a rich, often untapped resource, and that’s every Airman who has taken the time to become a subject matter expert in their area of responsibility,” Janes said. “What we’ve done is taken a position of enabling, not squandering, that resource and it has time and again paid dividends not just for us, but for every Airman who will ever touch the technology and processes we’re pushing out.”
“It’s my hope that when some of these Airmen change stations, their new squadron will be using the exact tech their work here has made possible. I want our Airmen to go onto other squadrons and be able to say, ‘Hey, you’re welcome. I helped make that.’”
That’s not to say every idea that comes from the 60th LRS think tank can be implemented, but for Janes, innovation culture means more than what the Air Force can receive from their Airmen.
“Innovation culture, at its heart, means acknowledging our Airmen as the SMEs they are and that no matter how much weight is on your sleeves or your lapels, there is always value in what we all bring to the table,” he said.
At the end of the day, though, Janes acknowledges the 60th LRS for what it is: just one squadron; something he takes stock of in an open challenge to Travis’ other 19.
“No squadron is going to succeed in changing the Air Force alone,” he said. “We’ve elicited the help of several different agencies while constructing our projects. They helped us not because it was their job that day to do so, but because they, like us, have the urge to leave this Air Force better than how we found it. Something every Airman of every squadron on Travis should ask themselves is ‘Do I have that urge in myself?’”