Taking a look at the future, remembering the past

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter Napier III, 514th Air Mobility Wing historian

Commentary by Mr. Walter Napier III, 514th Air Mobility Wing Historian

The Future

In 2016, the Air Force came up with the idea of SPARK to create a groundbreaking arena that allows Airmen of all ranks to problem solve, think outside the box, and provide solutions that can save the Air Force time, money and manpower.  At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, our innovation lab called “Infinity Spark” opened in October 2018.  A number of Air Force historians from JBMDL, Dover Air Force Base, and as far away as Holloman AFB, had a meeting at Dover AFB, and were invited to take a tour of the innovation lab they have dubbed “Bedrock.” 

 When I first walked into the building, I thought I was in the wrong place.  The walls were covered with colorful murals, house music played in the background, flat screens were everywhere, couches and bean bag chairs lined the floor space, and there was even a coffee bar set up.  A young man walked to the stage in a blue polo and jeans introduced himself as Major Ryan Nichol, chief innovations officer and a C-17 Globemaster III pilot.  He also introduced his right-hand man, similarly dressed, Chief Master Sgt. David Jackson.

Nichol then began explaining the goal of innovation labs like Bedrock.  The goal is to leverage technology and off-the-shelf solutions to fix the military’s problems, attempting to bridge the challenges of rapid innovation and navigate around the bureaucratic red tape, wherever possible, to ensure those solutions are created, presented, and delivered as quickly as possible.  To ensure these “think tanks” provide as many ideas from as many places as possible, they copied a slice of Silicon Valley in their modeling: the civilian clothing eases tension between the ranks to ensure a free flow of ideas. 

Now what does all of this mean?  How can we fix problems while relying on as few outside entities as possible?  Staff Sgt. Alex Feith-Tiongson, chief technology officer and a C-5 Galaxy aircraft maintainer, provided a few examples.  He showed us around a room with a number of 3D printers.  He then gave a great example of the quick fix and cost-saving potential of the technology they employ: When a handle for a hotplate in an aircraft breaks, the normal cost to fix the issue is around $1,000, and there is logjam of different units trying to replace the same part.  The technology at the Bedrock innovation lab, however, can be used to fix the problem locally for around 17 cents.

A few other areas they showed us were a virtual reality training station, where difficult maintenance training on aircraft can be virtually conducted, providing Airmen a level of competence without the hands-on cost.  They have also been reaching out to other technological firms and creating partnerships for future development; the most recent being a robotics company.

Airmen with an idea or solution are encouraged to submit their ideas online.  For Joint Base MDL the website is https://www.jbmdlspark.org/

The Past

After seeing where the Air Force is going, the historian group then visited the Air Mobility Command Museum to take a look at where we have been.  Inside the museum were displays and aircraft from World War II.  As a visitor walks into the museum they are met by a Waco CG-4A glider, with a Jeep loaded inside ready to glide into France.  Across the hall sat a refurbished C-47 Skytrain, looking ready to load up paratroopers for the Normandy airborne drop.  On the other side of the glider, a flight crew prepared to board their B-17 Flying Fortress to drop bombs over Nazi Germany.  


The aircraft had all been expertly refurbished and maintained and looked ready to streak off into the sky at any moment.  The C-47 had actually dropped paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division into Normandy on D-Day.  The museum tracked down two of the men who made the jump and had them sign the aircraft.  The B-17 was a World War II-era aircraft, but came off the line too late to take part in active combat. 

Along the walls there were displays from some of the many missions Air Mobility had taken part in, from the Berlin Airlift to more recent events that the 514th AMW took a hand in, like providing aid to Haiti.  Outside the museum, aircraft were parked all over the place, ranging from a C-119 Boxcar to a massive C-5 Galaxy.  One of the more fascinating aspects, and also easily missed, were colored lines in the air park.  These lines created boxes to compare the size of the cargo bay from the many aircraft the Army Air Forces and then Air Force employed.  The small boxes were the C-47s, while the largest belonged to the C-5. 

I would like to thank Douglass Miller, 436th Air Wing Historian for inviting us down to Dover AFB and showing us both where we are going and where we have been.