JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
“Innovation is more than a buzzword... It is evolutionary or revolutionary changes to existing processes, capabilities, and mindsets," said Gen. Charles Brown Jr., U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff.
In line with this vision, the 1st Fighter Wing developed a team to transform its Airmen’s innovative ideas into reality. The team became known as the innovation cell responsible for improving the 1st FW, one Airman at a time.
“Our primary function is to aid individuals in developing effective solutions and the process of making their ideas into tangible pieces,” said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Samples, non-commissioned officer in charge of the 1st Fighter Wing’s innovation cell.
According to Samples, he’s seen the best innovations start from what could be perceived as a problem or inconvenience. For example, Maj. Mendel, Air Combat Command Weapons and Tactics pilot, came to the innovation cell and addressed an issue with a sniper case he and the other pilots had to regularly carry.
“My fingers hurt whenever I carry it,” said Mendel. “I wouldn’t consider it something in need of ‘innovation’, it’s just a problem.”
Samples immediately responded, “That’s exactly what innovation is!”
Together, they began to brainstorm how to make the handle more comfortable to carry. They created a 3D printed model and soon, had a fully developed handle that was no longer was painful to hold.
“Sometimes I have to explain to people that a problem isn’t just a problem, it’s an opportunity for innovation,” Samples said. “We’re solving problems Airmen deal with every day.”
An Airman can have a good idea, proclaimed Samples, but if they do nothing with it, it doesn’t matter. Through the innovation cell, Samples hopes to foster an environment that inspires Airmen to not just be ‘thinkers’ with good ideas, but become ‘doers’, who take action.
“The work we are doing is important because it’s teaching people very important lessons,” said Samples. “It gives them that little bit of hope by knowing they have a way to approach challenges and not be stuck dealing with a problem. We are here to create lasting change, big or small, for the Air Force; and to me, that is the most rewarding part.”
Lt. Col. Brian Pascuzzi, former 1st Fighter Wing chief of wing plans was the founder of the innovation cell. Similar to Samples, he believes that innovation is about exploring problems, creating solutions and removing barriers to change and succeed.
“Historically, the U.S. Air Force was borne out of novel applications of air power, and my experience has shown that Airmen are more than willing and able to continue that proud tradition of innovation,” said Pascuzzi. “[Airmen] directly tasked with getting the job done, often have incredible insights on how to do things faster, better and cheaper. Any one of us can be innovative and make a huge difference if we are given the tools and the support to bring our ideas to fruition.”
Retired, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Caban, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, came up with the PMAC - a portable magnetic aircraft cover. Originally, the intake and exhaust port covers on the F-22s were foam pieces, and every time the F-22s deployed or had to go on temporary duty, pallets were filled with these foam covers and, due to space, had to be transported on separate aircraft.
Caban solved this problem by developing the PMCA, a cover that was thin as paper that magnetically attached to the aircraft. The cover can also be rolled up and transported with the F-22s.
Pascuzzi and Samples explained how the PMAC has been one of the most successful designs created within the innovation cell.
Caban’s PMAC was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Air Force Spark Tank competition. His concept is continuing to spread, and the F-35 community has started developing a similar idea based off of his model.
“Tech. Sergeant Caban came to us with his idea, and now the entire F-22 fleet is benefiting from the fruits of his labor,” said Pascuzzi. “In a very real way, we were able to enhance mission readiness for the entire Air Force. Even simple concepts, when combined with an innovation cell that knows the process and leadership that is willing to take risks, can impact events at the highest levels.”
Samples believes Airmen are the key to success. One idea can change the outcome of any situation.
“We have to continue to maintain forward movement,” said Samples. “[Airmen] are dealing with everyday problems and don’t know where to go. We need Airmen to know that the innovation cell is here. If there is a problem, there is a solution- it’s not something they just have to deal with. The phrase, ‘that’s just the way it is,’ is unacceptable. There’s always room for improvement and all it takes is one Airman with initiative to change the entire U.S. Air Force.”