Taking Flight: How Akima Is Helping to Shape the Airmen of the Future at the United States Air Force Academy
Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the sprawling campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy is the place where the pilots of the future first take flight. At the elite military academy, cadets learn a range of Airmanship skills starting with piloting engine-less gliders, single-engine aircraft, and if desired, participate in free-fall parachute jumps activities.
“These young Americans really learn how to fly from the bottom up,” says Raymond James, the Project and Site Manager for Akima Logistics Services (ALS), the company that provides logistics services for the Academy’s flight programs. A retired senior U.S. Air Force Logistics Officer, James now leads a team of aviation, logistics, and maintenance professionals. This team provides critical Integrated Logistics Support for the Academy’s Airmanship Training programs, ensuring aircraft are always safe and ready to fly to prepare cadets for their future missions.
From the warehouse to the airfield and, ultimately, the skies, ALS helps carry out a unique mission: maintaining and managing a fleet of 64 training aircraft operated at the Academy, including Schempp-Hirth, Flugzeugbau, DeHavilland, Cirrus, Cessna, and CubCrafter models. But far more than just fulfilling a checklist of responsibilities, ALS is a true partner in supporting the Academy’s mission. The ALS team has their eyes on driving continuous improvement, including finding and sourcing rare, hard-to-find parts from vetted suppliers and leveraging digital technology and other breakthroughs to innovate and improve operations.
“The mission of the military is really all about readiness,” James says. A focus that infuses both the training curriculum at the Academy and the approach ALS takes as the lead industry partner supporting the Academy’s Airmanship Training programs. “It’s crucial in the development of the future Airmen who will be a critical part of the USAF warfighting mission.”
Focus on Flight
The U.S. Air Force Academy, or USAFA, trains thousands of cadets each year, with many of them graduating into the ranks of the Air Force and the newly minted U.S. Space Force.
The academy’s motto is "Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.” Those same values guide ALS as it provides integrated logistics support for the Academy’s mission.
Among ALS’ key responsibilities: supporting the flight training programs that provide the building blocks of future Air Force pilots.
“Akima prides itself on exceeding the expectations of our customer,“ says Matthew Boden, ALS’ Deputy Project Manager and Director of Maintenance. “We strive to work closely with USAFA stakeholders and our vendor partners. This partnership is especially important with our direct customer at the airfield, which includes three separate flying training programs.”
The first of these three flying training programs is the 94th Flying Training Squadron’s, Glider/Soaring Training, giving the cadets their first taste of flight in aircraft without engines, learning aeronautics and other important basic flight skills.
“That’s the cadet’s first true introduction to flight, and it's essential that program is successful,” James says. At the height of the summer training season, ALS runs over 150 sorties a day — and 15,000 sorties a year.
In the second program, cadets have the opportunity to fly solo in a single-engine aircraft under the auspices of the 557th Flying Training Squadron’s, Powered Flight Training. In this phase of their training, over 500 cadets take to the skies in the academy’s Cirrus T-53A, Cessna T-51 and Cessna T-41 aircraft, learning more advanced flight training skills, including cross-country navigation and instrument flying.
In the third and final program, 98th Flying Training Squadron’s Parachute Training, cadets are shuttled in UV-18A Twin Otter aircraft into airspace high above the academy, where they perform free-fall parachute jumps with spectacular views of Pikes Peak and the entire Colorado Springs area. With this alternative to actual piloting, cadets choose to attain their master jump wings through the Wings of Blue program, the pinnacle of USAFA parachuting.
As USAFA’s provider of Integrated Logistics Support, ALS knows readiness is paramount — especially when it comes to flight training. Under the terms of its contract, ALS meets stringent requirements for keeping aircraft mission capable.
ALS’ key to success is a robust maintenance and logistic regimen as well as building and sustaining strong partnerships with its suppliers and vendors.
The Plans, Scheduling, and Documentation (PS&D) department at ALS meticulously plans and documents all the scheduled maintenance ALS aircraft mechanics carry out on the fleet they service. But the organization’s managers and mechanics also have to be agile at times in the wake of unforeseen maintenance repairs, known as unscheduled maintenance.
“Imagine that you have a mechanical breakdown that’s unforeseen or maybe even damage to an aircraft, which is not too uncommon in a training environment,” says Tracy Sanders, ALS’ Quality and Logistics Manager, who previously spent years with the company as a Maintenance Scheduler and Analyst. “We have to be able to integrate that unscheduled or unplanned maintenance into our normal flow without throwing everything else off.”
In contrast to the military-grade aircraft the cadets of the Academy will one day be piloting, the training fleet is made up of general aviation aircraft, which means many of the vendors ALS works with to source parts are “mom-and-pop-style” vendors. That means screening supply support vendors — making sure they meet quality management and safety certifications — is key.
“We are thoroughly vetting our vendors to make sure that they are top quality and meet the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. All in an effort to deliver certified parts in a timely manner,” Sanders says.
In addition, the training aircraft fleet ALS services is aging, meaning parts can be hard to source. Often, ALS must be creative and proactive about maintaining the supply chain. The company has developed a “watch list” to manage obsolescence issues. ALS teams with the System Program Office, for potential research and development efforts to address sourcing of hard-to-find parts. This partnership recently collaborated with the Air Force Rapid Sustainment Office to develop a technical data package to manufacture a critical obsolete part for the Cessna T-51 aircrafts, an essential part of the 557th Powered Flight Training program.
“Thanks to Akima's innovative approach to system engineering along with the Air Force's engineering capability at the Rapid Sustainment Office, we have ultimately eliminated that obsolescence issue and extended the life cycle for that aircraft and for the fleet,” Boden says. “This results in a higher level of reliability, increased availability of aircraft to fly a greater number of sorties, and significant cost savings to the government through airframe life cycle extensions.”
As the Academy’s provider of Integrated Logistics Support, the ALS team understands its role as a private sector partner in helping fulfill the Academy’s mission to prepare the next wave of future Airmen.
More than simply meeting key metrics, the ALS team is driven by a spirit of creative problem-solving that drives innovation and continuous improvement. For example, when it comes to performing maintenance, ALS has equipped its mechanics with tablets downloaded with aircraft technical order manuals instead of the traditional and unwieldy paper copies.
“With that, you can search more quickly; you can find references more quickly; you can do the job more quickly” Sanders says. And because the technical order manuals are all-digital, they can be auto-updated. “We know that we're going to always have the most up-to-date and relevant copy,” he added.
ALS also launched ‘Tiger Teams’ to develop solutions to enhance USAFA operational support.
“We consistently hold Tiger Team meetings with our customer to work through both technical and operational issues,” Boden says. “These meetings have improved levels of communication and team alliance, resulting in a collaborative partnership between operations and maintenance that meets and exceeds mission requirements.”
Such Tiger Team reviews have helped ALS make important improvements to the design interface of the fleet.
For example, ALS’ Tiger Team addressed a design flaw amongst the Cirrus T-53 fleet. During the peak summer months of flight training, aircraft cockpit temperature exceeds 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It turned out the standard headliners — the lining of the inside of the aircraft — were not supplying an efficient amount of cooling. ALS worked to rethink the design interface, coming up with a solution that allowed for the installation of an aftermarket air conditioner and redesigned headliners to keep cadets cool during training.
A phrase often used at the Academy to describe its approach to training the future pilots — and leaders — of the Air Force is “leadership laboratory.” The idea is that cadets are learning leadership skills by stepping in and taking action.
James and the other members of the ALS team say they are proud of the company’s supporting role in keeping that leadership laboratory running smoothly by preparing cadets for some of their first experiences for a future in aviation.
“We're an influential part of the USAFA team, introducing cadets to aviation,” James says of ALS’ role. “We take extreme pride being an instrumental part in shaping the experiences of these future leaders.”
This content is made possible by our sponsor Akima; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of GovExec’s editorial staff.