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 PHOENIX SPARK: Innovation for Tomorrow’s Warfighters, Today

By MS. ARYN KITCHELL, Staff Writer

Phoenix Spark got its start in February 2016 as the Travis Air Force Base Innovation Office and was developed to leverage Airmen’s ideas to deliver rapid innovation to the Warfighter. They developed a culture to solve base-level issues, discover opportunities for growth, and to partner with experts in industry and academia. In April 2017, former AMC Commander General Carlton Everhart officially signed a charter cementing Phoenix Spark as AMC’s innovation office.

Today, there are over 30 bases with Phoenix Spark cells, according to Capt Kris Fernandez of the 60th Air Mobility Wing’s Phoenix Spark Hub at Travis AFB, CA. Since the creation of the Travis cell, AFWERX, an Air Force team of innovators, has helped establish Spark cells at other bases not just in the United States, but across the world with the addition of Shogun Spark at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

At Travis AFB, the Phoenix Spark team hosts a weekly Spark Rally where Airmen come to pitch their ideas or their pain points. “Then the team helps them work through the problem,” said Fernandez. Of course, Airmen can also contact the Phoenix Spark team through email, phone calls, and on their website at www.travisSPARK.org.

Fernandez described Phoenix Spark as a day-to-day grind of Airmen innovating from the bottom up. Airmen throughout the base have ideas for solutions to their daily pain points and the Phoenix Spark team takes those ideas, embraces them, and develops ways to turn them into reality.

In the last year, Phoenix Spark at Travis AFB has completed 45 projects, with another 72 suggestions in the queue, according to Fernandez.

One of Phoenix Spark’s successes began in 2017 when they developed, in-house, an aircraft-mounted electronic flight bag holder for the C-17 Globemaster III. “An identical EFB mount has now proliferated throughout the C-5 community and is now installed on every aircraft,” said Fernandez.

Another pain point brought to the attention of the Phoenix Spark team was the working environment for loadmasters during combat operations in C-5M Super Galaxies. The loadmaster’s flight safety duties frequently involve being in the cargo compartment of the airplane during critical phases of flight in combat with no harness support for an extended period of time. This is not an ideal situation safety-wise, particularly while the aircraft banks and possibly performs quick, evasive maneuvers.

To avoid standing during operations, some loadmasters had taken matters into their own hands and hooked cargo straps, not intended for human use, onto parts of the airplane that were not meant to be latched on to, said Fernandez. This misuse resulted in injuries.

In response to the loadmaster’s need for safe physical support, Phoenix Spark had loadmasters from the 22d Airlift Squadron work with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Junior Force Warfighters Operations in RX, or JFWORX, to prototype the sling. According to Fernandez, the prototype has been completed.

Even though Phoenix Spark usually churns out physical tools to solve pain points, Fernandez thinks of the initiative not as just a tool builder but as a critical thinker. “Spark exists for things more than just developing tools. We’re here to help people think through problems,” said Fernandez.

To increase flight safety, Phoenix Spark is hoping to improve ground training. They want to do this by pushing into the augmented, virtual, and mixed reality realms, explained Fernandez. These solutions could augment existing training methods while lowering risk, increasing overall training availability, and mitigating the high cost of operating real-world aircraft, all while keeping safety as a top priority.

While Phoenix Spark is the day-to-day innovation grind happening at Travis, AFWERX is an Air Force-wide program that creates a network of innovation with numerous bases during their yearly event called Spark Collider. This July at the AFWERX Fusion Xperience in Las Vegas, AFWERX and the Air Force utilized grants under the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) to partner pain points with startup companies that can prototype a solution relatively rapidly. Companies can receive up to $1.875 million from the SBIR office after funds matching to develop prototype solutions to Warfighter problems. From there, the companies have to prove the feasibility of their proposed solution before they are approved to move on to phase three. “The point of the program is to rapidly iterate with a fail forward type of mentality that ultimately brings out the solution the Warfighter wants,” said Fernandez.

Phoenix Spark and its partnering programs provide innovation so our Air Force can continue to be one step ahead of the rest of the world, and our Airmen can have their voices heard and their tools and ideas implemented.