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Innovation at the Flight Level

By Col David E. Foote 2nd Maintenance Group

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Do you hold the key to the next major advance in airpower? I certainly hope so. But, it's okay with me if you start a little smaller on the innovation scale.

One of the key traits of a true Airman is a spirit and passion for innovation. Even though our Air Force has been a distinct service for 67 years, that creative spirit has existed since the first human contemplated "breaking the surly bonds of Earth." Of course, innovations can span from those with lofty, strategic impact (think nuclear weapons or stealth technology) to more humble ideas like a better way to process performance reports through your squadron.

In their foundational document, "The World's Greatest Air Force: Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III remind us that, "Now, more than ever, we need bold leaders at every level who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take prudent risks to achieve mission success."

It's the "at every level" that I'd like to expand on a little. In my travels around our group and the base, I am constantly impressed and excited by the Airmen I meet who are fully committed to innovation. It doesn't take a commander or a senior noncommissioned officer to innovate, it just takes someone who cares and understands the problem--usually the people closest to the challenge. Who does that sound like? It sounds to me like hundreds of military and civilian Airmen at Barksdale, including members of the 2nd Bomb Wing, Air Force Global Strike Command, Eighth Air Force and many other organizations who share the base.

Just in the past couple weeks, I've come across several examples of innovation around the 2nd Maintenance Group. When I visited the support section of the 96th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Master Sgt. Jason Baldwin's team showed me how, based on an idea from Staff Sgt. Brian Reed, they reorganized the tool room to place high use items closer to the checkout counter to decrease the distance they have to travel to retrieve and restock items. This was a change that didn't require additional money, just time and effort, but had a big impact. The changes reduced the amount of time customers wait and increased the time they are available to work on our bombers. In addition, Senior Airman Jacob Andrews completely reorganized the spare and broken tool program. Again, with little to no additional money, he improved tool control, drastically reduced the time needed to conduct tool inventories and streamlined storage and accountability.

The professionals who run our Weapons Standardization shop recognized that some of our weapons load crews were not proficient at nuclear fault recognition and resolution procedures, so they innovated.  They added fault recognition and resolution techniques and procedures to monthly training events. This meager investment in time will better equip our weapons loaders to meet the challenging demands of nuclear generations. A fairly simple innovation could have national security impacts!

One particularly difficult challenge we have in the 2nd Maintenance Group is how to pass the knowledge that our journeyman and craftsmen have gained, through years of experience, to our apprentices.

Tech. Sgt. Alexander Crandall, one of our Quality Assurance inspectors, took the initiative to do something about it and innovated. He worked with supervisors in the 2nd Munitions Squadron who assigned a couple junior technicians to Crandall for two to three days. During that time, he walked them through lesser known technical references, passed along his knowledge of maintenance tasks and procedures, and had them observe task evaluations. The program has since been expanded throughout QA and all of our squadrons are participating. Again, with an investment of time and energy, some of our Airmen are gaining valuable early mentorship that will make them sharper technicians.

As the examples above illustrate, you don't always need money to innovate. You really just need desire and a good attitude to make a difference. So, whatever name innovation might go by on a given day--Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century or continuous process improvement--creative solutions are really about a mindset focused on making our Air Force better. So, do you have the next big idea that will catapult Air Force capabilities and combat readiness? If you do, we're all ears. But, if you want to start with something smaller, that's OK, too.

In the words of Winston Churchill, "This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure." Whatever you do, don't just accept things the way they are--innovate!