Although there were no fatalities, the hulking aircraft had broken into sections that could never be knit back together.
But some smart Robins Air Force Base engineers, technicians and program managers saw the largely intact forward fuselage and came up with an idea.
“Why not slice off the flight deck, fly it to Robins and create a sorely needed software integration lab?”
The question was asked, agreed to, and today the idea has taken on form and substance. Last January, two giant forklifts moved the C-5 cockpit from its temporary Robins storage site to its final location. A huge crane gave the cockpit its final flight – lifting it in place. Then a $750,000 structure was built around it, completely enclosing the cockpit in a maze of steel and support systems.
Today, the SIL is 18 months away from completion. Much of the original cockpit wiring has been tested, confirmed and retained. Some of the legacy avionics systems are reusable. When all is completed, the lab will have the same electronic configuration as a C-5 aircraft with modernized avionics.
What remains is installation of additional black boxes and development and testing of software to simulate the systems onboard an operational aircraft.
“We can’t go to Amazon.com and say we’d like to have the tools to simulate the C-5’s fuel system or certain navigation or communications functions,” said Bob Zwitch. “They don’t exist, so we have to create all of that.”
Zwitch, 402nd Software Maintenance Group director, said the end product will be a “golden unit.” It will give Robins engineers a next-door laboratory to test C-5 changes before exporting them to operational units.
Robins and the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center is the Air Force focal point for management, sustainment and depot overhaul of the 111 C-5s in the inventory. Although some older C-5s likely will be retired, the remainder will receive updated avionics – the same configuration as the Robins test facility.
“With this lab, we can test software and it won’t know whether it’s flying in the lab or at 30,000 feet,” Zwitch noted. “We can test it in all different kinds of modes to ensure we’ve really built a quality product.”
Zwitch praised Brian Daniel and Stormie Chenoweth for converting the idea into something tangible. Both are Mercer University electrical engineering graduates. Daniel oversaw construction of the building. Chenowith’s team is working the myriad of hardware and software issues to make the lab fully functional. Completion should come in June of 2012.
Zwitch said the C-5 system program office at Robins invested $15 million in the project. “But a contractor wanted $40 million to do the same thing,” he pointed out. “So there was a significant cost savings to do this internally.”
Lockheed Martin, the original C-5 manufacturer, has a SIL but its use is restricted.
“They have to split time between all the different configurations of the aircraft,” Chenoweth noted.
This facility will give Robins engineers a dedicated unit.
“Now, we have two choices – go back to a contractor to test software changes or do what minimal testing we can do here then schedule an aircraft,” Zwitch pointed out. “When we use an aircraft, we have to take it out of its mission rotation and that can be tremendously disruptive and expensive.”
With the new SIL, the director stressed, Robins engineers can test their changes and know they have a perfect product before it leaves the base.
“Plus they can test things that would almost never occur in the real aircraft,” he said. “This will give us a tremendous tool to do thorough testing at much less risk to the aircraft and flight crews.”
And amortizing the investment won’t take long at all, added Chenoweth.
“The last major software change required six flight tests before it was certified,” she said. “And each flight cost about $975,000.”
Zwitch expects the SIL to be a key player in C-5 support for decades, regardless of the cuts that could come to the fleet.
“It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand aircraft out there or two, we have to do software changes and updates until the last aircraft is in the bone yard,” he said. “So this lab will be around for decades.”
The SIL project is also a major reason engineers find life in the Air Force much more exciting than in the private sector, Zwitch contends.
“Projects like this come along once in a career,” he said, his smile growing even broader. “It’s how we can hire engineers. We can give them really cool work to do – hands on, real, stuff that really affects the customer.”