Face of Defense: Airman Earns First ‘Spark Tank’ Innovation Award

March 07, 2018

An airman from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, took home the top prize in the Air Force’s first-ever Spark Tank innovation competition at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium here Feb. 22.

Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda, an aircraft refueling boom operator with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, won the inaugural Air Force Spark Tank Competition Cup for his proposal to reengineer the boom operator platform position for the entire KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft refueler fleet. He asked the Air Force for $1.5 million to implement his innovation.

“It’s refreshing to see [leaders] encouraging airmen to innovate,” Bachleda said. “It’s really cool!”

Better Boom Operator Platform

Bachleda’s winning idea is designed to provide a more stable and ergonomically correct platform for all KC-135 instructor boom operators. The proposed innovation aims to both reduce back and neck injuries and save the Air Force $132 million each year in this critical aircrew specialty.

“We were getting neck and back injuries, and it’s been happening since the 1950s,” he said.

A panel comprised of Air Force senior leaders, including the secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force’s chief of staff and industry partners, judged six innovative finalists.

After Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson heard Bachleda’s idea, she gave firm direction to the Air Force’s acquisitions lead.

“Before we leave tonight, I want you to talk to this guy, figure out his [system] and get this [out] to the airmen,” she said.

Innovation Competition

The Air Mobility Command, based at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, and its Phoenix Spark innovation program embraced the call for innovation after Wilson kicked off the Spark Tank competition last September. The competition was co-hosted between the Airmen Powered by Innovation Program and the newly-announced AFwerX Innovation Ecosystem, and was conducted in a multi-step approach starting with participants submitting their ideas through their major commands.

AMC was the only command with two innovations selected for presentation to Air Force and industry leaders in Orlando.

“Innovation is central to our Air Force‘s ability to apply airpower,” said Air Force Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, AMC commander. “At a time when we are challenged with resource constraints, with no rest from our adversaries, we need to find more effective ways to continue as the world‘s most dominant Air Force.”

Bachleda encouraged his fellow airmen to keep bringing their ideas forward.

“I didn’t come here to win,” he said. “I wanted senior leadership to see this problem in front of them and explain to them that we can save the Air Force all this money.”

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, contributed to this article)