BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Nov. 3, 2017 —
Air Force Senior Airman Christopher Caruso realized there was a much better way to test the functionality of a sniper pod and the electrical systems of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, so he pioneered a new way to detect problems and troubleshoot those systems.
Caruso, a native of Campton, New Hampshire, is an avionics technician with the maintenance unit attached to the 555th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
"As an avionics technician, I inspect the electrical and communication systems on the F-16," Caruso said. "This aircraft is a 'fly by wire,' so it is a digital system sending signals everywhere. Without the wiring, and the airmen who maintain them, this aircraft would literally be a sitting hunk of metal."
During his time deployed here, Caruso's two innovations were a digital video recorder tester and a sniper pod test stand. They may sound simple, but they're crucial in keeping the close air support mission moving.
"The DVR tester allows me to interface with the aircraft and bypass the digital video recorder head unit, which records all of the videos from the multifunction display," he said. "The multifunction display shows the pilot what is going on with the aircraft. It will also show radio frequencies, flight displays and other visual aids the pilot has while flying."
For this to work, Caruso bought a small television. He connects it to the aircraft, and it gives him a live view of what the pilot sees on their systems.
"Bypassing this system, I am able to view everything and troubleshoot down to a broken wire," Caruso said. "In the past, I would have to take a cartridge out of the head unit, and bring it over to another section, which is usually not manned 24/7, to give it an ops check. With this method, we are able to see real-time if there is an issue with the wiring or the head unit."
For maintenance, time is an essential commodity, and troubleshooting a component could ground an aircraft for an extended amount of time, putting a burden on other aircraft. This time-saving mentality extends to another innovation Caruso devised that affects the sniper pod.
The sniper pod provides advanced long-range target detection/identification and continuous stabilized surveillance for all missions, including close air support of ground forces. It enables aircrews to detect and identify weapon caches and individuals carrying armaments, all outside jet-noise ranges.
"The sniper pod test stand allows us to troubleshoot a pod by performing maintenance on it and perform ops checks without physically mounting it to the aircraft," Caruso said.
Apparatuses used to hold the sniper pod in place on the aircraft are designed in a way that limits the maintenance airmen can perform by blocking certain compartments. The stand, designed using computer-aided design software Caruso found online, was created to enable maintainers to conduct ops checks on the sniper pod as if it were actually mounted to the aircraft, and repair it.
"This innovation saves between two to three hours during sniper pod maintenance," said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Wesley Ruuti, superintendent of 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-16 maintenance. "That equates to around six to nine total man-hours, given pod maintenance is usually performed by two to three personnel."
One of the best benefits in a combat environment is the ability to do pod maintenance directly on the aircraft without having to perform time consuming reconfigurations, Ruuti added.
"Crews are now able to simply roll the new pod mounted stand next to the aircraft to conduct any necessary troubleshooting," he explained. "If the mission dictates, they would be able to return the aircraft to combat ready status in less than 20 minutes."
Support from his leaders was monumental in turning an idea into something tangible for Caruso's innovations to come to fruition.
"We have procedures in place to locally manufacture equipment and it usually starts with a specific idea in mind," Ruuti said. "Chris had a vision and knew exactly what he needed. As supervisors, we simply listened and provided him the necessary guidance to see it through.
"Everyone was bought in to Chris' idea, all the way up to the Maintenance Group commander," the chief continued. "This unit's leadership team is not in the mindset of 'It's always been that way.' They trust in the young minds and ideas of maintainers. That's what helped make this project so successful."
The metals tech shop was one unit that was pivotal in turning Caruso's blueprints for the sniper pod stand into an actual working mechanism.
"Everyone has been so supportive, since they all want something that can improve the overall performance of our processes and procedures," Caruso said. "My supervision gave me the confidence and time to get this done. Everyone from the commanders to my direct supervision has shown interest, whether it's pushing paper or supplies."
Caruso credits his accomplishments to the whole unit, who enabled him to put his innovations together. His ideas have enabled the team to generate aircraft with little delay and deliver combat airpower in Afghanistan.
"Chris is an outstanding airman, driven to help others and refine processes," Ruuti said. "His efforts improved the unit's efficiency and ultimately had a profound impact on the entire Air Force -- specifically, the F-16 community."