In 2013, the C-5 Galaxy, the Air Force’s workhorse that delivers everything from potable water to Blackhawk Helicopters to troops on the ground, began the modernization process. It needed to execute more missions, with more cargo, using fewer aircraft. The estimated cost? $7.4 billion.
Fast forward to 2018, and C-5 Galaxy is now capable of carrying two 78-ton M1A1 main battle tanks or helicopters and other large equipment intercontinental distances. Delivery happens in hours, versus days. The C-5 Galaxy has the highest operating cost of any Air Force weapon system at $716.58 million. This large-scale modernization effort is estimated to save the Air Force $200 billion over the course of the next 40 years, and only time will tell if it was a solid return on investment.
The downside to more missions, is the increased safety risk to loadmasters. Loadmasters have a demanding job, where fatigue and proximity to moving cargo are common culprits. According to militarytimes.com, while the military is trying to do more with fewer people, the services lost at least 8,670 work days to aviation-related injuries between 2011 and 2017. Most injuries are relatively minor, such as sprained ankles. However, there may be long term injuries for the loadmasters that sit next to the cargo they’re delivering. These specialists sit perched on a small bar along the aircraft wall, for hours-long flights. Aside from being uncomfortable, if the aircraft experiences turbulence or shifting cargo, loadmasters may sustain more damaging head injuries. Of the 1,034 injuries compiled by militarytimes.com, 125 concussions cost workers 466 lost work days. Given the growing understanding of how those issues can linger for years, it is likely the total of lost time is far greater.
To solve this problem, Wright Brothers Institute’s Tom Mitchell, Maker Hub Manager, and Joe Althaus, Rapid Innovation Manager, teamed with JD Bales and Jason Wolf of Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials & Manufacturing Directorate to visit Travis AFB and review a critical AF need for a C-5 loadmaster safety restraint/seat solution. The team reviewed current operations, problem areas, met with a team from 22nd Airlift Squadron (60th Air Mobility Wing), inspected and measured the environment and envisaged a preliminary conceptual solution that was well received by the users with focus on aircraft integration compliance. WBI-Works’ mechanical designers and fabricators provided on-site support when initially exploring the problem and the customer’s requirements. The first prototype was machined and fabricated at WBI-Works. Using the design|build|test methodology, Wright Brothers Institute will continue to improve on the original seat design, ultimately improving the the conditions of C-5 loadmasters, keeping the Air Force mission-ready.