Innovating the C-130 fleet: MSgt Bauer’s Spark Tank idea

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Master Sgt. Justin Bauer is the 2021 Spark Tank winner
Master Sgt. Justin Bauer is the 2021 Spark Tank winner. Bauer is a C-130 maintenance Airmen, who pitched his idea for a C-130 wheel repair. (Air Force screenshot)
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As the global climate of conflict continues to evolve, so must our processes and procedures.

These requirements are laid out by the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., in his strategic guidance “Accelerate Change or lose” and highlighted by Spark Tank, which is an annual competition to demonstrate the innovation and ingenuity of Airmen across the force.

One of these Airmen is Master Sgt. Justin Bauer, a C-130 maintenance Airmen who is currently deployed to an undisclosed location in Southeast Asia, whose idea for a C-130 wheel repair landed him in the winner’s seat in this year’s Spark Tank competition Feb. 26, 2021.

“About a decade ago, the C-130 community changed the type of wheel they used, causing a change in what was required for the repair of the wheels and most places weren’t able to do the necessary repair,” Bauer said. “To repair the wheel, it must be heated and it is a large, expensive facility upgrade to meet the technical order in place to do the repair, which forced the wheels to be sent to Hill Air Force Base. Hill does this repair for 17 different airframes and has not been able to keep up, and the lack of wheels has gravely impeded C-130 crew’s ability to provide combat ready aircraft.”

Bauer recognized the problem of degraded mission capabilities and developed a new, timely and cost effective method of performing the wheel repairs.

“To solve this issue, I created a small handheld heating element that slides into the wheel and heats it from the inside out that provides Airmen the ability to perform these repairs at home station,” Bauer said. “This takes a process that was averaging around five months down to 96 hours. This product also only costs around $400 per unit as opposed to the $220,000 facility upgrades that were previously needed. We are looking to eventually take this to all airframes, but it currently fixes the C-130 wheel shortage force-wide.”

One large oven equates to roughly 450 of these handheld devices, which only 52 are required to support the entire U.S. Air Force C-130 fleet for several years. The projected savings from this device alone are projected at nearly $50 million over the next five years, as well as saving over 100 man-hours annually.

“Enabling our Airmen to perform on the tasks that they are trained and qualified to do is going to have substantial impacts on fleet sustainment and readiness,” Bauer said. “By creating a stockpile of wheels, it will allow us to generate more sorties and ensure that we remain ready for anything that may happen.”

Impacts of this idea, which was simply created by an Airman who recognized and addressed a problem, are going to be seen and recognized throughout the fleet for years to come.

“Master Sgt. Bauer has taken one of the oldest work processes in aviation and has completely flipped the script on how it is done by enabling a local repair as opposed to doing a remote repair,” said Joseph Truttman, Bauer’s Spark Tank partner and coach. “He has basically shifted the entire C-130 wheel repair process paradigm on a global-level and is going to do the same for the entire fleet soon. An idea with this level of impact only comes along once in several decades, and expansion to other weapon systems will multiply the savings in a huge way.”

Innovation is one of the ways that the Air Force continues to adapt to stay ready to deter and, if necessary, defeat any near-peer adversary or threat that may arise. Airmen across the force continue to find better ways to do things and Spark Tank is just one of the ways that they are highlighted.

“This has been about a year long process of competing at different levels all the way up into the final five, but it has been a rewarding process due to the support and resources that we have received,” Bauer said. “The AFWERX team has been extremely available and helpful for me from subject matter experts, pitch coaches and anything that I have needed, even with me going through a deployment.”

Whether home station or deployed, Airmen continue to develop the Air Force into what is going to be required for tomorrow’s fight, and Master Sgt. Bauer is a prime example of the Airmen that are pushing the force forward to increase our lethality and readiness for a high-end competition.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is, absolutely do not underestimate how big the impact will be of even small changes that are made,” Truttman said. “Things such as Spark Tank makes us a more powerful and lethal Air Force because it makes us a more efficient and effective one, especially in an era of seemingly unlimited challenges but limited resources to draw from. For our Airmen: lean forward, research, experiment, innovate and help the Air Force and yourself by going beyond the limits of what we know and what we do right now. Think about what’s outside that box you work in. Think about tomorrow, because it’s coming and we need to be able to meet it head-on.”

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