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Innovative design could save KC-10 aircrews valuable time

  • Published
  • By Louis Briscese
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Aircrew members on the KC-10 Extender could soon benefit from a new safe that will store weapons and classified documents right on the aircraft. A design initiated by the 60th Air Mobility Wing Phoenix Spark Lab at Travis Air Force Base has been in the works for some time and now has the attention of Air Mobility Command and The Boeing Company to address a potential fix that has long-plagued aircrews.

Currently, aircrews spend a lot of time coordinating the placement of weapons or other sensitive materials because of their inability to store the items themselves. Maj. Matthew Ables, 9th Air Refueling Squadron director of staff, believes having a safe on the KC-10 will give aircrews more time and flexibility.

“This safe will provide them the means of securing weapons and other materials if they need it,” Ables said. “Aircrews will have more time to mission plan or enter into crew rest earlier without having to run around looking for a place to store the items.”

With the capacity to haul up to 356,000 pounds of fuel, the KC-10 has been refueling aircraft around the world since the early 1980s and remains in high demand today.

“We’re proud of the fact no other aircraft can carry as much fuel to the fight as we can,” Ables said. “It gives us the ability to project airpower around the globe.”

Some of those locations don’t even have the necessary facilities to secure weapons, which adds another layer of coordination for aircrews.

“Currently it takes some ingenuity from our aircraft commanders to coordinate with ground facilities to store weapons,” Ables said. “We often have to take our assets to locations that don’t always have the services we’re accustomed to.”

Realizing that aircrews could benefit from an onboard safe was the easy part; figuring out how to do it was the challenge. The daunting task was placed on the shoulders of Tech. Sgt. Zachary George, 60th Air Mobility Wing Phoenix Spark Lab noncommissioned officer in charge, who relished the challenge to help aircrews.

“The biggest concern was finding a way to secure the safe to the aircraft without having to modify the KC-10,” George said. “There’s a lot of red tape that comes with trying to modify an aircraft and it’s usually never approved.”

After reading a lot of Air Force Instructions and researching different types of storage devices, George and his team decided that creating a new safe was not feasible.

“The easiest solution was to utilize an already existing General Services Administration-approved safe.” George said. “This could give us the flexibility to make it small enough to fit onto the aircraft but also easy enough to take it on and off if necessary.”

Attaching the safe to the aircraft without modifying it was the next step in the process. George used his background as an aircraft structural maintenance shop supervisor to design a plate to attach to the existing floor.

“We used a GSA safe that had already been approved for mounting in vehicles,” George said. “We had to fabricate a plate that would fit into the hole pattern on the bottom of the safe and lock into the existing floor track.”

George solicited the help of his coworker Jeffrey Bruns, 60th Maintenance Squadron sheet metal shop template maker, to figure out how the safe could be secured to the existing aircraft floor track.

“At first we started off with cargo hooks but couldn’t get them to work properly,” Bruns said. “Finally we reached out to the company that makes the fasteners and got all their schematics for each one.”

The key was finding a fastener strong enough to secure the safe. Once the fastener was selected, a plate could be fabricated to the exact specifications of the fasteners.

“The challenge was researching what style of fasteners we would use,” Bruns said. “We took a part that already existed and designed a plate around that.”

The fittings come directly from the manufacturer and are made-to-order, which can be time consuming. George decided to 3D print the fittings to avoid any delay in the testing phase.

“We opted for quick-release fittings so there wouldn’t be a need for unnecessary tools,” George said. “The collaboration between the Phoenix Spark Lab, maintenance fabrication flight and input from the aircrews is what made this possible.”

The effort has attracted attention from Air Mobility Command and a third party company, who are also working on a prototype storage safe of their own. Somewhere in the near future the three entities will come together to compare their efforts and choose a design.

“A solution is coming, that’s the most important thing,” George said. “Our energy and efforts have attracted the attention from AMC which means at the end of the day, the problem gets solved.”

The aircrews are grateful for the efforts of the Phoenix Spark Lab. They understand they amount of energy it takes to implement change.

“It’s no small act to propose an Air Force-wide change of any type,” Ables said. “It’s really an amazing accomplishment to coordinate with the rules and regulations that dictate what can and cannot be allowed on an aircraft.”