The success of the Air Force isn’t determined by those with stars on their shoulders, but by the Airmen on the frontlines, who strive to create innovative new processes to execute the mission more effectively.
Senior Airman Christopher Caruso realized there was a much better way to test the functionality of a sniper pod and the electrical systems of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, so he pioneered a new way to detect problems and troubleshoot those systems.
Caruso, a native of Campton, New Hampshire, is an avionics technician with the maintenance unit attached to the 555th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
“As an avionics technician, I inspect the electrical and communication systems on the F-16,” Caruso said. “This aircraft is a fly by wire, so it is a digital system sending signals everywhere. Without the wiring, and the Airmen who maintain them, this aircraft would literally be a sitting hunk of metal.”
During his time deployed to Bagram Airfield, Caruso’s two innovations were a digital video recorder tester and a sniper pod test stand. They may sound simple, but they’re crucial in keeping the close air support mission moving.
“The DVR tester allows me to interface with the aircraft and bypass the digital video recorder head unit, which records all of the videos from the multifunction display,” he said. “The multifunction display shows the pilot what is going on with the aircraft. It will also show radio frequencies, flight displays and other visual aids the pilot has while flying.”
In order for this to work, Caruso bought a small television, which he connects to the aircraft, and gives him a live view of what the pilot sees on their systems.
“Bypassing this system, I am able to view everything and troubleshoot down to a broken wire,” Caruso said. “In the past, I would have to take a cartridge out of the head unit, and bring it over to another section, which is usually not manned 24/7, to give it an ops check. With this method, we are able to see real-time if there is an issue with the wiring or the head unit.”
For maintenance, time is an essential commodity, and the longer the wait to troubleshoot a component, means an aircraft may be grounded for an extended amount of time, putting a burden on other aircraft.
This time saving mentality extends to another innovation Caruso devised, one which impacts the sniper pod.
The sniper pod is an advanced long-range target detection/identification and continuous stabilized surveillance for all missions, including close air support of ground forces. The sniper pod enables aircrews to detect and identify weapon caches and individuals carrying armaments, all outside jet noise ranges.
“The sniper pod test stand allows us to troubleshoot a pod by performing maintenance on it and perform ops checks without physically mounting it to the aircraft,” Caruso said.
While there are other apparatuses used to hold the sniper pod, they are designed in a way that blocks certain compartments, limiting the actual maintenance Airmen can do. The sniper pod stand, designed using computer-aided design software Caruso found online, was created to enable maintainers to conduct ops checks as if it was actually mounted to the aircraft, and make repairs.
“This innovation saves between two to three hours during sniper pod maintenance,” said Chief Master Sgt. Wesley Ruuti, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-16 maintenance superintendent. “That equates to around six to nine total man-hours, given pod maintenance is usually performed by two to three personnel.”
One of the best benefits in a combat environment is the ability to do pod maintenance directly on the aircraft without having to perform time consuming reconfigurations, Ruuti added.
“Crews are now able to simply roll the new pod-mounted stand next to the aircraft to conduct any necessary troubleshooting,” he said. “If the mission dictates, they would be able to return the aircraft to combat ready status in less than 20 minutes.”
In order for Caruso’s innovations to come to fruition, support from his supervision was monumental in turning an idea into something tangible.
“We have procedures in place to locally manufacture equipment and it usually starts with a specific idea in mind,” Ruuti said. “Chris had a vision and knew exactly what he needed. As supervisors, we simply listened and provided him the necessary guidance to see it through. Everyone was bought in to Chris’ idea, all the way up to the maintenance croup commander. This unit’s leadership team is not in the mindset of ‘it’s always been that way.’ They trust in the young minds and ideas of maintainers. That’s what helped make this project so successful.”
The metals tech shop was one unit that was pivotal in turning Caruso’s blueprints for the sniper pod stand into an actual working mechanism. Without their support and expertise, this stand would not be here today.
“Everyone has been so supportive since they all want something that can improve the overall performance of our processes and procedures,” Caruso said. “My supervision gave me the confidence and time to get this done. Everyone from the commanders to my direct supervision has shown interest, whether it’s pushing paper or supplies.
Caruso shares his accomplishments with the whole unit, who enabled him to put his innovations together. Knowing that time and money are saved by these accomplishments, the team is able to generate aircraft with little delay and deliver combat airpower in Afghanistan.
“Chris is an outstanding Airman, driven to help others and refine processes,” Ruuti said. “His efforts improved the unit’s efficiency and ultimately had a profound impact on the entire Air Force—specifically, the F-16 community.”