403rd maintainers earn recognition for innovative idea

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Lee, Master Sgt. Jessica Davis, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Slaydon, Staff Sgt. Bradford Collums, Staff Sgt. Josh Thompson, and Senior Airman Elizabeth Demoran, a team of aerospace propulsion and metals technicians from the 403rd Maintenance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., recently participated in the Spark Tank competition, an innovation initiative co-produced by the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force, Management Rich Lombardi, and AFWERX, with their idea of an engine oil pan hoist for C-130J Super Hercules aircraft engines.

Spark Tank is an annual competition inviting Airmen and Guardians to present innovative ideas with the opportunity to procure funding, patent assistance, and implementation Air and Space Force-wide.

While the team’s submission fell short of the semifinals of the competition, placing 24th out of 189 entries, their idea is very much alive as it has been granted “Just Do It” status by AFWERX.  

“The ‘Just Do It’ initiative is exactly what it sounds like,” said 2nd Lt. Tyler Wiggins, 403rd Maintenance Group executive officer. “According to the email they sent us, the Spark Tank team implemented the JDI in response to years past when submissions made leaders ask, ‘Why aren’t we already doing this?’ Our team didn’t win the competition, but this recognition feels like a win knowing they’ll receive support and the idea will positively impact the way we do things here and potentially at other C-130 units.”

The idea for the oil pan hoist stemmed from the need to remove the oil pan to get to the engine’s intake, a part that heats cold air that comes in during flight, preventing icing and loss of operability of the engine.

“What’s been happening,” explained Senior Master Sgt. Michael Lee, 403rd MXS engine propulsion flight chief, “is that over time the intake is overheating, creating bulges in the metal, and the best way to get to it to fix it requires us to remove the 200 lb. oil pan completely.”

The problem: the method the propulsion shop had been using to remove the oil pan was wrong according to a quality assurance inspection, but there was little guidance for a solution.

This is when Lee invited his Airmen to brainstorm a way to safely, and efficiently, remove and replace the oil pan.

“What we came up with was the idea of a metal hoist that could lower and lift the pan using harnesses,” said Lee. “Sergeant Thompson is an aerospace engineer major, so that allowed us access to a CAD (computer aided design) program, and we brainstormed ideas and came up with four different ones.”

Lee presented the designs to the metals technicians, and allowed them to decide which would be the most feasible to create.

The result: an apparatus that runs parallel to the engine with a loop on top to attach to the flightline crane or overhead hoist for incremental lifting and lowering, and four loops on the bottom to attach harnesses that cradle the oil pan.

“The biggest impact from this, aside from it passing quality assurance standards, is that it requires less personnel and less time than how we were doing it before, which frees up personnel for other work that needs to be done,” said Lee, whose shop is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of engines for 10 C-130Js and 10 WC-130Js.

The estimated calculation based on the reduction of time and personnel of financial savings is around $2,500 per intake service said Lee, while the cost to make the hoist was about $2,700. Do the math, and the hoist pays for itself with just two services, a number they have surpassed in the past year. 

With the ‘Just Do It’ initiative, Lee said they are receiving assistance filing for a patent for the hoist, and, once it goes through all of the processes of approval, the unit could receive reimbursement for the cost to make their prototype.

“It has to go through testing from engineers and other entities at different levels, to make sure it’s safe to use,” he said. “We’ve done some stress-testing here. Things generally have to be able to support three times the weight of its intended use, so we’ve tested the hoist with 600 lbs. and it held up fine.”

For now, the 403rd MXS is allowed to use the hoist by filling out a risk management assessment.

As for Total Force impact, the Air Force as a whole has over 400 C-130s in its fleet, and Lee said he could see this idea having a widespread impact over time.