In the once-obscure Air Force Coordinating Office for
Logistics Research (AFCOLR), tucked away at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio,
telephones ring off the hook these days. The sound may be grating, but it
should also be sweet music to the ears of every maintenance man who ever
grappled with a weapon of strange, complex, or just plain boneheaded design.
AFCOLR's newly insistent callers are among the premier
weapon managers and engineers of the corporate contracting world. Drawn by an
unusual program known as "Blue Two," they are queuing up for a chance
to "walk a mile" in the shoes of the harried Air Force men and women
who must maintain the weapons that the contractors produce. In the process,
their eyes are opened to the frustrations and problems that they unwittingly
The Blue Two concept is brutally simple. Weaponeers are
taken to the field for a firsthand, down-in-the-grease look at what it's like
to maintain their arms in the "real world." No sensibilities are
spared. On the flight line or in the repair shop, participants are expected to
roll up their sleeves, don coveralls, or slip into protective gear—then live
the life of the enlisted man for a week. Virtually without exception, useful
Typical, say AFCOLR officers, is the case of one
high-ranking manager of a munitions plant. During the executive's Blue Two
visit to Hill AFB, Utah, he was approached by an airman with a simple question.
Why, the airman wanted to know, do bombs come six to a pallet, when the fuzes
for the bombs come packed eight to a box? As a result of the odd configurations,
he went on, airmen at Hill find themselves short of fuzes or saddled with
leftovers. Why couldn't the two components be packaged logically, in equal numbers?
"That manager asked me to find the nearest phone,"
remembers CMSgt. Danny Lewis. "He got right on the telephone [to his
company] and fixed the problem on the spot." Bombs and fuzes now come
packed in equal numbers.
The Genesis of Blue
Many such stories are recalled by Chief Lewis, who is known
as the originator of Blue Two, so named in recognition of the color of the Air
Force uniform and the number of stripes typically worn by the maintenance
person. Ask Chief Lewis to explain the genesis of Blue Two, and he'll answer
quite simply that the whole thing started by accident. The subject was engines.
The story goes like this. Six years ago, an elite group of
designers working on the Joint Advanced Fighter Engine project was in the midst
of a seminar. Among those attending was Chief Lewis, who was at that time
stationed with AFCOLR. The more he heard the engineers discuss engines, the
more uncomfortable he became. As he puts it: "Listening to them talk, I
was amazed at how little they actually knew about the real-life world of
At a break in the seminar, Chief Lewis approached one of the
speakers and asked if he would be interested in visiting a flight line to see
an engine shop in action. The engineer jumped at the chance. The invitation
was expanded to include some of his colleagues, and the whole group of them
wound up taking the tour. "You should have seen their reaction," says
Chief Lewis. "I knew in five minutes that we were on to something
The rest, as they say, is history. In short order, AFCOLR
officials put together what it called a "Visit to the Field" program,
later renamed "Blue Two" by Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez, Deputy Chief of
Staff for Logistics and Engineering at the time. The name change was viewed as
symbolic because "it's all oriented toward the two-striper," says
MSgt. John Holloway, Blue Two Visit Manager for AFCOLR. "He's the one who
gets singled out for all the greasy work."
The program has expanded as rapidly as time and manpower
will allow. There are generally six trips per year, each lasting about five
days. The visits include walk-throughs at several bases of a major air command,
plus an Air Force logistics center. All that is required of participants—other
than a willingness to work hard—is a clearance for "Secret" or
higher and a pledge to give AFCOLR a written report at the conclusion of the
For participants, life on the road is far from easy. The
first official Blue Two Visit (BTV) tour, in 1983, set the pace for future
program schedules. "We were working on the ATF [Advanced Tactical Fighter]
program," says Chief Lewis, "and took the prime bidders on a
fourteen-day tour of jet engine shops and overhaul facilities. Every step of
the way, I saw high-ranking engineers down in the grease, on the floor,
crawling under engines, and taking pictures. They were all competitors, but
after the first twenty-four-hour period, they were calling themselves 'the
Tough Team,' for keeping up with the schedule. I had them up at 3:00 a.m. to do
pre-flights, and we'd go on from there."
On a subsequent Blue Two visit, one high-level corporate
manager was shocked to discover the kinds of hardships suffered by mechanics in
the bitter cold at Minot AFB, N. D. In his follow-up report, the executive told
the story this way: "They [BTV tour leaders] issued the [contractor] team
cold-weather gloves and asked us to screw a nut on a bolt through a 'C' clamp.
This really emphasizes the need for 'ease of maintenance' under these
environmental conditions. They pointed out that many of the new airmen,
frustrated with the clumsy gloves, sometimes take them off to work on the aircraft
on the line. They are found with hands sticking to the metal, and the hands
must be freed by use of a heater/blower."
Another high-ranking industry chief on a BTV heard an Air
Force technician voice a complaint about a certain type of reconnaissance camera
made by the executive's company. "It was a problem with how the lenses
were buffed out," says Chief Lewis. Result: "The industry rep got on
the phone and fixed it."
Greatest Gripe Gone
The Blue Two program has resulted in the alleviation of one
of the engine technician's greatest gripes—the irritating presence of safety
wire. This wire is used to hold parts in place, theoretically reducing or
eliminating vibrations. "In the past, it was assumed that if an item had a
hole in it, it needed safety wire," says CMSgt. John Nowicki, the Air
Force Blue Two Program Manager.
But safety wire is despised by airmen who have to remove it
every time it stands in the way of a required maintenance procedure. It is a
time-consuming process, causing painful cuts. What's more, the wire itself is a
potential hazard because, as a "foreign object," it could damage an
engine. The Blue Two program gave airmen a chance to get this message across.
A 1986 report from an engine contractor included this on his list of lessons
"Never use safety wire. The only use for safety wire is
to hang the engineer that requires its use." As a result of this
observation, safety wire will be eliminated in most instances and will be
used, says one maintenance chief, "only where it actually has a
A 1987 BTV to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) resulted
in changes in the maintenance procedures for the F-15's engines. Retired Gen.
Charles L. Donnelly, Jr., who was CINCUSAFE at the time, recalls the incident
that led to the change in technical orders.
"There was a required maintenance procedure on one of
the parts in the F100 engine," he explains. "The engineers said, 'You
must slide the engine out on its rail in order to do this procedure.' One of
our airmen said he could do it without sliding the engine out, and he showed
us that he could. Within ten days, that procedure was changed throughout the
The move had a direct impact on all mechanics assigned to
the job. "That particular change probably saves between thirty minutes and
an hour per aircraft," says General Donnelly. "Multiply that by the
number of engines in the Air Force, and you've saved a lot of man-hours."
Lessons in Tool
Budgetary concerns were hammered home on a recent Blue Two
"tool" visit. Participants learned of a huge difference in the tool
requirements for two different helicopter engines. One required $1.2 million
in special equipment, whereas another needed only ten commercially available
tools, at negligible cost.
That and other BTVs emphasized a need for lightweight tools
as well. Many female mechanics, in particular, were having trouble handling
some of the heavier equipment.
The lessons in tool design were applied by at least one BTV
participant corporation—the Pratt & Whitney engine house. "The Blue
Two visits," wrote three P&W engineers who made the tour, "made
us more aware of the mobility requirements, and, therefore, upon return-mg
from those visits, we established aggressive support-tool goals [for] current
fighter engines." The new goal, they explained, is to issue sixty percent
fewer tools for their engines, at forty percent lighter average weight.
Participants have found that the Blue Two visits open their
eyes to a world they never imagined, even when their own types of designs are
involved. Aeronautics engineers visiting Dover AFB, Del., had just such an
experience when they came face to face with C-5A operations. Wrote one aircraft
engineer: "The range of accessibility problems on an aircraft of that size
was both amazing and embarrassing to us as designers."
For the engineers and designers, another source of amazement
has been the harsh demand placed on maintainers by chemical and biological
warfare. Designers concede that, sitting in their offices, they forget that
little bolts and awkward angles become nearly insurmountable obstacles to a
mechanic suited up in protective gear.
"Chem gear is very bulky and unwieldy," says
Sergeant Holloway. "Sometimes we have a bolt that is so small, a guy in chem
gear can't even grip it, let alone use it. We try to get the guy who designed
it to try to use it in the field, and of course he can't." As a result of
BTV, says Sergeant Holloway, some companies now test their own products for
use with protective gear.
The list of lessons both learned and applied goes on and on.
Meanwhile, the billets for future trips are fast being filled. Even now,
AFCOLR is nearly fully subscribed for forays into the world of electronic-warfare
software in June, surveillance radar and Pacific Air Forces support in August,
and Alaskan Air Command aircraft support in December. The geographic sweep of
the tours will range from Germany to the continental US, Alaska, Japan, and
Air Force officials expect no slackening of demand from the
contractor community. "Each year, we put out to industry a schedule of
our visit sites," says Sergeant Holloway. "We try to limit our
number to about thirty from private industry and twenty Defense Department
people from the logistics world. We fill up on a first-come, first-served
basis. Those companies that feel they have a need to be on a trip will respond
very quickly. They pay their own way. We try to accommodate as many as we can,
but you wouldn't believe the response we get. As soon as the schedule goes out,
In recognition of his part in conceiving, developing, and
implementing the program, Chief Lewis, now the senior enlisted advisor for the
56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill AFB, Fla., was honored last year with
the Dudley C. Sharp Award for outstanding achievement in logistics. The award
is given each year to the individual who makes the most innovative contribution
in this area. In bestowing the award, the Air Force predicted that Blue Two
will have a beneficial impact on "every Air Force weapon and support
system—not just new acquisitions, but also modifications and upgrades to
existing systems and support structures."
There is no way to come up with a precise estimate of
savings in time and money brought about by Blue Two, but AFCOLR officials think
it is significant, and the Air Force knows a good thing when it sees one.
General Marquez has called the program "one of the smartest things we've
Susan Katz-Keating, a
writer for Insight Magazine since 1985, specializes in military topics. Her
most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, "The Troops Behind the
Trainers," appeared in the December '88 issue.
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