KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Suppose your organization is tasked with training 1,500 special mission aviation students a year, from multiple major commands, to perform their operational functions. Their academic phase of training needs to be realistic, and it should not tie up the limited number of flyable aircraft available to train aviators who are in the flight phase of training. In addition, the training must produce maximum value from a relatively minimal investment.
That’s one challenge facing the 58th Training Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The squadron’s fabrication flight – a team of eight mechanics and technicians – does its part to answer the challenge. Since 2008, they’ve repurposed retired aircraft into, or in some cases, created from scratch, more than two dozen ground-based aircrew training devices. The equipment is housed in a World War II hangar on the base’s west side known as “The Monster Garage.”
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Benjamin Bryant, commander of the 58th TRS, described a training device there called “the enhanced fuselage trainer,” an AC-130J that is being turned into an MC-130J ground-based trainer after the aircraft sustained irreparable damage during a test flight.
“The aircrew recovered it, but it could not be made airworthy. It should be ready for training in January. It’s a blessing that the crew was able to recover it, and that we’re able to utilize a $72 million aircraft that otherwise would have been scrapped. The mantra of the Monster Garage and the fabrication team is, “Taking things that might be bound for dust, resurrecting them, and allowing them to serve the Air Force and the Department of Defense in another capacity,’” he said.
The squadron commander said the biggest challenge in operating the garage is that the training priorities of the multiple major command customers don’t necessarily converge.
“There’s only so much space, and everybody wants a roof over their device’s head. A C-130 is a big plane, and we have two C-130 hulks, a CV-22, a UH-1, an HH-60, Humvees, forklifts and more inside the facility. Best maximizing the use of that space is both an opportunity and a challenge. Only through the innovative culture of that team are we able to make that happen. That’s the highlight of the team – it’s not the tools, it’s not the devices – it’s what’s between their ears. Their ‘can-do’ attitude – they’ll make the impossible possible. Innovation is something that a lot of people talk about – this is where it’s actually done.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Nick Muley, 58th TRS Fabrication Flight commander, said, “The projects we undertake are one-of-a-kind. There are no blueprints for them. Taking a Talon I and turning it into a J model – there’s no book on that. Being able to figure out how to overcome hurdles that you find – not knowing what you’re going to find, not knowing the problems that you’ll run into, and being able to overcome those, is challenging.”
Muley said his team is looking into acquiring an advanced tool that would save time and money in the construction process.
“We do a lot of reverse-engineering of parts. For example, one of the guys made a faceplate. It took him three days to measure it with a micrometer and do the programming in the computer-aided design software. With a 3-D scanner, you’d scan that part, through software it gets over to your computer-aided manufacturing program, and from there, it goes to the machine and gets cut. You’re seriously reducing the production timeline,” he said.
Bryant said of the fabrication flight, “I’m constantly surprised at what they’re able to do. There’s an MC-130E in the Monster Garage that they turned into an MC-130H Talon II several years back. That plane has since retired from this location. Then Special Operations Command said, ‘We’ve got money – can you turn this into an MC-130J Commando II?’ It’s going to be utilized for HC-130J training, as well. It’s a complete overhaul of everything aft of the cockpit. This project will be completed for just over $1 million. They started the overhaul in the summer of 2019, and students will start using it in November.”
He also spoke about job satisfaction.
“The most rewarding part of the mission is being able to act as the vanguard of the communities that we serve. Whether personnel recovery, strategic defense, distinguished visitor airlift, or special operations aviation – this team is the beginning of that road for our students. We don’t always get to see the fruits of that labor, because we’re at the beginning, but when the operational units come back to us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing – you’re training these people right’ – that is rewarding and incredibly satisfying for the team.”
Asked what he thinks the future holds, Bryant said, “Change. This year has proven that you can plan for every known eventuality and life is going to throw something your way that you were not prepared for. It’s only through grit and determination that this team has gotten through turbulent times and will get through turbulent times. There’s no more of a microcosm of that grit and determination than the fabrication flight and the Monster Garage. I’m confident that we will continue to provide exceptional warfighter capability to the joint enterprise. The world is growing more complex, and the problems are increasing in complexity. The Earth’s not getting any bigger, so the competition for resources is going to increase. Competition all the way up to all-out conflict. We need to be accepting of that change. We need to welcome the opportunity to meet that change, and be ready for it. We can’t rest on our laurels. That’s what the Monster Garage does not do. They’ve been lauded all the way up to the Department of Defense level with awards. But as soon as those awards are handed out, they’re moving on to the next project. They don’t do it for awards or recognition – they do it to do a job right, and to meet the demands of this country. You can’t ask anything more of them. They will meet those changes.”