The Air National Guard (ANG) flies numerous missions in support of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. To accomplish this, it found it needed to improve the process by which it calculates the load balancing of its aircraft. If an airplane is not balanced correctly, it may encounter difficulties taking off or landing, increasing the risk of crashing. Michael Ferrell, senior master sergeant in the Air Operations Division of the ANG, is responsible for identifying the equipment needed by 1,200 ANG loadmasters to accurately calculate balanced loads for all flights. At the same time, he's charged with managing the taxpayers' money and ensuring the safety of those serving their country. Ferrell had previously toyed with the idea of automating these calculations; however, the funding was never available.
For years, loadmasters performed weight and balance calculations with paper, pencils, and calculators. The figures were transferred onto a paper form that is included with all flight paperwork each time an airplane becomes airborne. This process had many potential flaws. First, the pencil notations were often unreadable. Second, the calculations are manually intensive, taking into account the type of fuel loaded and its location on the airplane. The manual process creates a significant potential for errors, both in the calculations themselves and in the transfer of figures from the calculation sheet to the official flight paperwork. Third, the calculations were time-consuming, resulting in rushed manual calculations or even skipped processes in wartime situations due to time constraints, risking flight safety.
All purchases by the ANG require a blind competitive bid process. In this case, in addition to the bid process, a test of the lowest bidders' solutions was completed in multiple environments. "The equipment had to be rugged enough to handle harsh locations such as the frigid South Pole and the deserts of Iraq," says Ferrell. "After testing was completed, we selected a solution including Dell Axim 50V PDAs, Citizen PD-24 printers, and a weight and balancing program designed by Lockheed Corporation. The PDA and printer communicate via an IR (infrared) port that is unreadable when the devices are 10 feet or more away from one another." Wireless technology is not an option for the military, due to its unsecured nature.
RUGGED PDA, PRINTER
WITHSTANDS SEVERE TEMPERATURE VARIATIONS
"The printer and PDA are easy to operate and require little maintenance," says Ferrell. "They both perform in outdoor conditions from 50 degrees below zero to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. The solution ? hardware and software ? has served 100% of our expectations, if not more." The printers were subjected to extensive testing in Iraq and Antarctica and have since survived accidental drops in wartime situations. One key feature is the printer's thermal paper, which provides a nonsmudge printed copy of load balance calculations. The calculations can be printed out, signed, and included with the flight paperwork. The paper used for calculations in the past was very thin and easily smudged. In desert conditions, figures were sometimes smeared, making them unreadable when transferred from the loadmaster to the pilot.
The load balancing software provides instant feedback on the center of balance on airplanes. When data is entered and a compartment nears capacity, the screen turns yellow. If the compartment hits capacity, it turns red. This provides significant timesavings over the old method, when a limitation range was verified in a manual, and the process restarted if necessary. "Not only does this solution provide increased accuracy over manual methods, it also offers faster results," says Ferrell. "Previously a lesser-experienced loadmaster in a quiet environment completed a load balance in about 15 to 20 minutes. An experienced one completed this in about 5 to 10 minutes. After implementing the solution, all calculations are completed within 1 to 3 minutes."
Two-thirds of the ANG's loadmasters presently have both the PDA and mobile printer. Ferrell's goal is to outfit the other 1/3 ? another 280 sets ? soon. The success of this solution could benefit other parts of the military, as well. The solution is being considered for the load balancing of ANG's airborne tanker airplanes for load balancing purposes, as well as the Air Force Reserve.