SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Recently, two groups of graduate students from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., visited Scott Air Force Base to work with the Elevate innovation team, the 375th Civil Engineer Squadron, and the 375th Operations Group to identify potential solutions to two different challenges impacting the flying mission here.
One of the groups is working with C-21 pilots on a cockpit trainer. In 2019, the C-21 aircraft underwent an avionics upgrade with new communications equipment and weather radar. Currently, there is no training platform for pilots that matches the upgraded C-21 cockpit configuration.
Capt. Chandler Thorpe, a C-21 pilot, explained to his group of students, “We go down to Florida for training. Everything is different there. The simulator we use for training is not the same as the C-21 aircraft we are actually flying.”
When graduate student Kelsey Giaimo asked him about the impact of not having an updated training platform that depicts the current C-21 cockpit configuration, Thorpe said, “It’s frustrating to sit in the cockpit simulator and not know where things are. You are used to the switch being in one place in the aircraft. When you are in training, though, the cockpit simulator is the older version and the switches, gauges, and levers are in different places. When you are training, you have to re-adjust from the new cockpit configuration to how it was before the avionics upgrades.”
After talking with Thorpe and sitting in the cockpit, another of the graduate students, Kyle Gero, said he can understand the difficulty of not having a matching trainer with the updated cockpit configuration. “Before our visit to Scott, we were given a problem description and talked with the Elevate team. Seeing this in person crystallizes the challenges these pilots face.”
The second group of students is working to identify potential solutions to prevent flooding in Hangar 3, which sits in a low-lying area on base. On Aug. 12, 2020, more than five inches of rain fell on base over two hours causing flash flooding inside the hangar, the C-21 schoolhouse, and the Aircrew Flight Equipment office.
To address this issue, these graduate students met with the Elevate team along with the 375th Civil Engineer Squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Paul Fredin, and engineer Kenneth Cavanaugh. They walked around the building to examine existing drainage, toured the schoolhouse, which is currently undergoing re-construction, examined the hangar doors and entry points, and spoke with AFE personnel who were on shift during the August flood.
Student Kyle Collier said, “This is a huge facility and a much bigger problem that will require a more complex solution than I was thinking.”
These two projects make up the Innovating for Defense coursework for these graduate students. Doug Villhard, Washington University’s Academic Director and Professor of Practice of Entrepreneurship at the Olin School of Business, said, “This spring 2021 semester is the first time this class has been offered. It is based on a course that started at Stanford, which has spread around universities across the country. The objective is teach students how to think innovatively to solve problems. The beauty of doing so inside the Department of Defense is that so many of the non-classified challenges the Defense Department faces are also problems private companies have as well.”
Students taking the course are from the university’s business and engineering schools. Students are provided with a DoD sponsor to identify problems for class projects. Then, they interview and meet with DoD personnel to discuss the problem and possible solutions.
The next step for these two groups of students is to continue to define the scope of the problem and to work with their classmates and professors on potential solutions. The students will then present their ideas to the Elevate innovation team.
The course and the collaboration between Washington University and Scott AFB is a part of the National Security Innovation Network, whose mission is “to build networks of innovators that generate new solutions to national security problems” by connecting the DoD, colleges and universities, and venture communities to each other.
Villhard said, “We were introduced to Scott through Jake Laktas with NSIN. Together, we could think of no better partner than the Air Force base right here in our larger St. Louis community. We’re very proud to have a base located here and we’re even more proud of our new partnership.”
In a Jan. 27 university press release, Laktas, who is the program director and NSIN representative, said, “This course’s model is unique because it can be an equally valuable learning experience for DoD partners as it is for the students. University problems solvers, who are unencumbered by existing thought processes can lend brand new approaches and unique contributions to our nation’s most difficult technology and security challenges.”
Laktas’s comments mirror Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth’s remarks during a virtual “fireside chat” at the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium on Feb. 26. Roth said, “We would like to bring people in to provide us, frankly, things that we haven’t thought of…new ways of tackling the same sort of problems. That’s the key going forward. …Maybe there’s a young engineer or technologist out there who can bring us the ‘ah ha’ moment.”
Elevate’s chief innovation officer Maj. Adam Wallace, who is also a C-21 pilot, said, “As I’m walking around talking about these problems with these students, I’m learning they are bigger in scope than even I realized. These students are asking great questions and have lots of good ideas that we as Airmen haven’t yet considered.”
Editor’s note: Article includes information from the Jan. 27, 2021, Washington University press release, WashU Students Are Tackling Problems for the Department of Defense and from the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Feb. 26, 2021 article, Roth outlines priorities for Air, Space Forces during virtual ‘fireside chat’.