In many ways, two days at DEF 2015 achieved more for my vision of automated, optimized training flight scheduling than the previous two years of work.
When I arrived at the Naval Academy for a tour as a Math Instructor, I knew I wanted to build a system that demonstrated that automated, computer-generated flight schedules were not only possible, but were in fact better than what we typically produce manually. The Academy’s Powered Flight Program made that possible. The Powered Flight Program stands up each summer to give midshipmen a 14 event taste of military flight training. They typically fly 85 sorties each day on a variety of light civil aircraft, culminating in solo flights for midshipmen who excel in the program.
During the academic year I coded up the algorithms and built the supporting web application. I then ran the scheduling for the first four weeks of the summer, ensuring the program met our needs and rebuilding our business processes to take advantage of the technology. We ended up with a product that cut our scheduling work hours by ¾ and improved our student solo rate from 51% to 79%.
After seeing the system’s success with the Powered Flight Program, I called friends who were instructors in flight school and tried to work through their chain of command and mine to pitch a trial run of the system for a Primary flight training squadron. No joy. The first attempt was shot down by a civilian IT professional at the Air Wing, the second by a (since departed) Navy Captain on the Admiral’s staff. With the endorsement and backing of the senior aviator at the Naval Academy, I pitched it to another Captain on the Admiral’s staff. Nothing heard. We used the system for a second year at USNA. By this point we’d saved the Navy over $500,000 in reduced Initial Flight Screener and personnel costs.
I pitched it to a primarily Surface Warface (ship-driving) audience at the Athena Project in Norfolk. They were intrigued by an automated workshift-writing add-on that I built, but didn’t have much familiarity with flight training. A friend suggested I try DEF instead.
DEF was like an oasis. I reconnected with old friends and met new ones. The enthusiasm for improving the way the defense community operates permeated the meeting. I presented with a great field of problem-solvers and the idea received a warm welcome from the judges and the crowd. Their biggest question was why the military hasn’t already built an optimized flight scheduling system.
After pitching at DEF, I finally got some traction. Two participants (including VADM Daly, CEO of the Naval Institute) offered to email the idea directly to CNAF, the Commander of Naval Air Forces. He asked the staff at CNATRA, the Commander of Naval Air Training, to take a look at the idea. This time, the staff responded.
We found a wing and a squadron willing to give a try: TRAWING-4 and VT-35 (where I earned my wings nine years ago). I flew to Texas for a week to gather requirements and their scheduling rules. At the end of the week, I demoed a flight schedule built on their data that met the bulk of their constraints. It ran in less than a minute, despite the ten-fold increase in the number of syllabus events. I returned to my day-job, continuing development in my free time. I hope to spend another two weeks in Texas later this year, automating the data collection and training the squadron to use the finished product.
After publishing in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings article on DEF winners, I heard from another squadron – VUP-19. They wanted to use the technology for their planning process as they start up the Navy’s first remotely-piloted maritime patrol squadron. We worked together to develop their requirements and constraints and shipped sample schedules within weeks. Given a spreadsheet with their operational commitments, watch structure, crew manning concept, and sample personnel list, we can quickly generate detailed, down-to-the-minute, schedules for weeks into the future.
This story is not yet finished. It can still end tragically, with the death of this project for another decade. The project remains unfunded beyond CNATRA’s willingness to cover travel expenses, and unofficial beyond current CNATRA support. I still have another day job in the Navy, where I depend on the ongoing support of my command for time “off” to travel to Texas and rely on the patience of my family for the nights and weekends spent coding. But I hope the story will instead end in celebration, with the marriage of the right technology to a pressing business need. I would love to see a successful pilot lead to funding and contractual support for integrating the scheduler into our existing information management systems. Building a user-friendly interface will be vital. Much of our success in building the program for Powered Flight came from the daily contact I as the developer had with the operations staff. The system must be designed, tested and iteratively improved alongside the squadron operations and schedules officers. If we succeed, I’m convinced that we will save taxpayers money and train and deploy our pilots faster.
I hope this update gives you some measured optimism for the future of innovation in the military. If you have an idea, pursue it! Build it and come present it at DEF. I’ll see you there!