The Air Force liked Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda’s idea to prevent neck and back injuries for boom instructors so much that the McConnell airman won its first innovation competition.
It means the Air Force will spend $1.5 million to test and eventually use Bachleda’s invention in all of its KC-135 air refueling tankers.
It’s expected to save the Air Force more than $132 million annually.
Bachleda designed and built a new platform for air refueling instructors to lay on during air refueling missions. It consists of a hard panel he made out of composites and cushion that lays in the boom refueling pod of the KC-135.
The redesigned panel includes a chin rest and allows the instructor to easily access the joystick for the air refueling boom. The redesigned cushion takes the strain off the instructor’s lower back and hips, and is attached to the panel more securely than the cushion on the KC-135’s current instructor platform.
Bachleda came up with the design while serving as an instructor at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where air refueling boom operators are initially trained. There, several instructors were unable to fly with students because of neck and back injuries, “which created problems for me as a scheduler trying to fit students with instructors,” he said. “It was frustrating.”
Plus, Bachleda said, he didn’t want to end up with the same injuries as those other instructors.
“We have to stop it because we are breaking people,” he said. “And they’re getting out of the military … or being retired medically because they can’t do their job.”
It’s something that eventually touches all boom operators, because as they progress in their careers they move on to become instructors themselves, Bachleda said.
“The emphasis here is to better the quality of life for the entire career field,” he said.
According to his research, the injuries among active duty, Reserve, Air Guard and medically retired boom instructors cost the Air Force $132 million in fiscal year 2014. Based on that one year alone, it would cost the Air Force $3 billion total over the remaining life of the KC-135 fleet. The airplane is scheduled to be retired in 2040, he said.
Winning the Air Force’s inaugural Spark Tank competition wasn’t as important to him as having the “audience of the senior leadership” of the Air Force.
The competition is aimed at encouraging Air Force personnel to come up with ideas to save the service time and money. Its judges included Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.
Bachleda doesn’t know how soon testing will begin of his prototype platform, but winning Spark Tank should speed the process, he said.
Once the new platform is approved Bachleda envisions an quick installation process.
“Essentially you get it FedExed, open it up, pop it in the airplane and walk away,” he said. “It’s that easy.”