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PEO Digital Airmen decode F-35 maintenance

Ron Golan, Peter Wallace, and DeMarcus Townsend from Detachment 12 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., work with Staff Sgt. Samantha Buxton, dedicated crew chief with the 57th Wing’s Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on the Nellis flightline, near an F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter April 10, 2019. The “Mad Hatter” team from Det. 12 is learning how maintainers navigate technical orders while working on the flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bailee Darbaise)

Ron Golan, Peter Wallace, and DeMarcus Townsend from Detachment 12 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., work with Staff Sgt. Samantha Buxton, dedicated crew chief with the 57th Wing’s Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on the Nellis flightline, near an F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter April 10, 2019. The “Mad Hatter” team from Det. 12 is learning how maintainers navigate technical orders while working on the flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bailee Darbaise)

Maj. Jennifer Kannegaard, left, a product manager for the Mad Hatter F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter software project, leads her software design team to a working area for 57th Wing Bolt Aircraft maintenance unit maintainers April 10, 2019 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Kannegaard’s team is working to equip Nellis maintainers with programs that will quickly and easily locate the most up-to-date technical orders for use in aircraft maintenance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bailee Darbaise)

Maj. Jennifer Kannegaard, left, a product manager for the Mad Hatter F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter software project, leads her software design team to a working area for 57th Wing Bolt Aircraft maintenance unit maintainers April 10, 2019 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Kannegaard’s team is working to equip Nellis maintainers with programs that will quickly and easily locate the most up-to-date technical orders for use in aircraft maintenance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bailee Darbaise)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Software teams from Hanscom are fielding applications that help aircraft maintainers at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, plan for successful operational testing of the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-35 Lightning II.

Hanscom’s software teams travel to Nellis to work with customers in the 57th Wing’s Bolt Aircraft Maintenance Unit. Bolt AMU maintains six F-35 operational testing aircraft. Bolt Airmen serve as beta testers for programmers and designers who custom-build applications Air Force flightline mechanics use daily.

Maintainers work with the Autonomous Logistics Information System, or ALIS, to track scheduled and unscheduled maintenance issues on specific aircraft and fleet-wide. Hanscom used ALIS (pronounced Alice) as the inspiration for their effort, “Mad Hatter,” in reference to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“We’re not necessarily focused on changing ALIS,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Capizzi, who is heading up ’Mad Hatter.’ “We’re here to deliver software our Airmen love and help them spend the most amount of time on the flightline, physically fixing the aircraft. We want to provide applications that enable our maintainers to keep the aircraft they have mission-capable.”

Mad Hatter is the Air Force’s ongoing effort to work with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 systems, including ALIS. Lockheed supports diverse teams of Mad Hatter Airmen, government employees and specialized contractors by ensuring access to the source code necessary to understand the massive amount of information generated by the most advanced fighter aircraft on earth. Lockheed has also contributed its own software engineers to the project, adding its experience as the prime contractor to government-led efforts to build software to service the aircraft.

One of the F-35’s inherent advantages is its ability to self-diagnose and tell maintainers when certain systems need to be inspected, repaired or replaced. Modern auto mechanics reach for a digital interrogator that they plug into a car’s dash, or under the hood, before they ever grab a wrench. F-35 maintainers use similar tools to keep their jets flying, but PEO Digital software experts found they relied on more antiquated processes to augment or replace existing F-35 software.

“When we did initial discovery, we found that a lot of Airmen had augmented maintenance software with spreadsheets and printed schedules to track and plan maintenance,” said Capt. Brian Humphreys, an aircraft maintenance officer who is participating in career broadening as a program manager for the F-35 software design effort. “There’s all this great data the aircraft can give you, but since the existing system didn’t allow maintainers easy access to the data, we needed to build applications maintainers could use to access it.”

The PEO Digital software teams did what agile software developers always do when they encounter a large, complicated system. They isolate it into smaller, modular components that small teams can handle.

Their first success came just last week, in the form of two applications called ’Kronos’ and ’Titan.’  Kronos serves as an interactive scheduler that maintenance supervisors can use to create short- and long-term plans for flightline maintenance. Kronos digitized the Airmen’s maintenance tracking process, eliminating repetitive data entry tasks and helping plan future maintenance by providing calendars that respond to simple inputs. Titan is an application helping to track an aircraft’s health, ensuring every Airman can see and understand an aircraft’s readiness status in a single glance.

Mad Hatter saw a similar opportunity with tracking another vital piece of aircraft maintenance: Airmen themselves.

“When a maintenance supervisor is designing a shift schedule, he doesn’t actually care that much about ranks on each shift,” said David Zemsky, a civilian product designer who came on board during a special one-day hiring event, run by Mad Hatter’s parent unit, Detachment 12. “He cares about the levels of certification each Airman has, and tracking that can be extremely complex.”

Zemsky plied his trade as a user-design expert only three days after joining Detachment 12, also known as Kessel Run. He is working on another application called ’Athena.’ This mythologically-inspired app enables certification tracking in maintenance units by asking supervisors to add their Airmen’s certification statuses digitally, feeding into a more complete assignment process.

Putting enough people on duty to tackle every problem that rolls into the hangar is a crucial step for any maintenance unit. Athena could make that a nearly frictionless process.

Another team, led by product manager Maj. Jennifer Kannegaard, and called ‘Monocle’ is in initial discovery phases for an application that could one day provide technical orders, or TOs, to maintainers in a user-friendly way. Maintainers need TOs any time they touch an aircraft, but the current process for distributing TOs is wasteful and time-intensive, and TO viewers are clunky at best. 

Each Mad Hatter team has found success by maintaining tight ties with the 57th Wing aircraft maintainers in order to meet customer needs and ensure their final application contributes directly to aircraft readiness.

Kronos and Titan are already helping one Nellis unit, and the Mad Hatter team is eyeing the next step in the Agile development process. Capizzi and the Mad Hatter team of 70 government-led personnel are laying groundwork to scale their work for use in more F-35 maintenance units, possibly to include sister services’ and allied F-35 variants.