By Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 04, 2011
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Everyone has heard the phrase a picture is worth a 1,000 words but what about an idea that's worth $10,000?
Tech. Sgt. Tremaine Smith, with the 51st Maintenance Group, had just such a thought and had the drive and determination to get his idea off the ground.
He first discovered the problem nearly two years ago when he was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
This avionics technician was helping to troubleshoot a troublesome A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft having fuel-flow problems.
"The fuel-flow gauge was reading zero across the aircraft, a common problem with this particular jet," Smith said. "We couldn't figure out what was wrong or why it kept having issues."
The aircraft just returned from a complete depot overhaul, and technical problems such as this aren't so far-fetched when it's been through drastic repairs, he said.
Smith said everyone who worked on it followed the proper steps in the technical orders, and the problem kept pointing to the fuel-flow transmitter.
The fuel-flow transmitter regulates the fuel that goes to the engine and sends a signal back to the pilot that tells how much fuel is being sent to the engines.
"It's a critical system component that gets the engines going and keeps the aircraft in the air," Smith said. "Without it the pilots would never get off the ground."
The team removed and replaced the $10,572 unit and the problem was solved, or so they thought.
"Fuel pressure was good but the system was still showing a fault," Smith said.
Twenty-four hours of troubleshooting later, Smith decided to try something outside of the troubleshooting chart - he disconnected the cannon plug from the fuel-flow transmitter to isolate the engine malfunction.
What he discovered was the beginning of his money-making idea.
"After removing the connector the extra resistance caused by a loop in the fuel-flow transmitter dropped showing there was an issue with the wiring harness," he said.
From nose to tail, about 100 feet of wire runs from the fuel-flow gauge in the cockpit to the fuel-flow transmitter in the engine.
Smith performed continuity checks on the connector and found faulty wiring in the 39-pin cannon plug connecting the engine to the fuel-flow transmitter. The two wires were swapped by mistake, which was causing the malfunction.
Had the wiring harness been bad it could have taken hundreds of man hours and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace, which was the next step according to the T.O., he said.
Luckily it was only a quick fix; the wires were swapped back and his new-found step was soon to be added to the T.O.
His supervisor suggested he go through the process to submit the added step to the T.O. and eliminate any future problems and unneeded man hours at other bases.
The on-line paperwork and research took about 30 minutes to complete, but what seemed like an easy task turned out to be a bit more daunting, Smith said.
"It was a battle to get the step added to the T.O.," said the Portageville, Missouri native. "I knew it was worth the effort because the money and time it would save the Air Force."
Two years of fighting, and moving halfway around the world, still didn't stop this Airman from trying.
Now at Osan, Smith works in the technical order distribution office and is in charge of quality assurance for the flight-line avionics flight. No longer scraping his knuckles on burdensome connectors he manages more than 7,000 T.O.s in the maintenance library and ensures all the required aircraft maintenance is being done correctly.
With a little more expertise on how the T.O. process works he continued his fight to get the change submitted, and when he discovered a similar issue here it helped him build his case even more.
After being here a few months he heard of an all-too-familiar failure. This eight-year avionics technician asked if anyone tried removing the cannon-plug and checked the wiring harness -- he got blank stares. He knew he had to keep fighting.
"It's a simple step that can save time and money," Smith said.
He got back in touch with the engineers he was working with in Arizona and told them about the same fuel-flow problem at Osan, and tried to convince them he was onto something. It wasn't until a bright, new "IDEA" fell into his lap that really got the process moving.
Ed Moreno, Osan's Innovative Development Employee Awareness program manager, was the person who helped him re-attack the change.
Moreno said he worked with Smith to revalidate the cost savings and assisted in submitting the proper documents. A few months later the IDEA program proved its worth, and Smith received a $10,000 check on June 12, 2011, almost two years after he began his fight.
"This is the first $10,000 check Osan has seen in many years," Moreno said.
The IDEA Program uses a web-based automated system, IDEA Program Data System, from submission to the final evaluation decision. Submitters must identify the present method, proposed method and expected benefits.
They also need to explain why the current method should be changed with a detailed description or solution on how to change the current method or implement the idea, which also includes anticipated savings, efficiencies, or benefits to the Air Force.
The IDEA program then rewards Airmen for ideas that save the Air Force money and resources. They could receive anywhere from $200 to the maximum of $10,000 for valid idea changes.
Airmen are eligible to receive 15 percent of the estimated first-year savings, and in his case Smith saved the Air Force approximately $90,000 in repair costs over the next year.
But where did his never-say-no attitude come from?
Master Sgt. Corey Manning, a prior co-worker now stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, only had the privilege of working with Smith for about seven months. But Manning saw something in him that he didn't see in a lot of NCOs.
"(Smith) would always try to do his best," he said. "Not only identifying what could be better in his work-center, or the Air Force as a whole, but contributing to a permanent solution to any problem."
There is no doubt he has taken the Air Force core values to heart, and he has found a new family in his Airmen.
Another friend from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Staff Sgt. Kyle Schwartzmiller, said Smith was a great mentor and friend who took him and molded him as a NCO.
"(Smith's) drive gave everyone the motivation to do the best we could do," Schwartzmiller said. "The work center became a family, and we all knew what we had to do to get bombs on target and complete the mission."
"There isn't another person who I have worked with ... who has the drive, motivation and intellect (Smith) has," he said.
Tech. Sgt. Ronald Mathews, who is now at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., said Smith was someone who could always be counted on whether on or off duty.
Mathews said together they pushed each other to be the best at their jobs and to become better NCOs. He said they always talked about dreams of being a chief master sergeant or going through Officer Training School and getting a commission some day.
"I constantly pushed (Smith) to make rank and further his education while he helped me to further my Air Force career," Mathews said.
And one day, Smith may reach that goal.
Smith said he plans on using some of the money to further his education and support his family. He is married with one child and has another child on the way. He is currently enrolled in college and working on finishing his bachelor's degree in business administration.
Despite all the struggles, this Airman had the right attitude and drive to ensure every step in an aging aircraft was done right -- a true test of integrity, selflessness and excellence in all he does.