The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Abraham Wald, a Jewish mathematician, was driven out of Romania and Europe by the Nazi advance and emigrated to the U.S. where he would serve in the Statistical Research Group, a bunch of egg heads who used math to make the military better at everything from firing rockets to shooting down enemy fighters. And Wald was the one who convinced the Navy that they were about to armor the completely wrong parts of their planes, saving hundreds of flight crews in the process.


The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Abraham Wald, a mathematician who helped save hundreds of air crews by writing brainiac papers.

(Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach, CC BY-SA 2.0)

To understand how Wald, sitting in New York for most of the war, saved so many lives, it’s important to understand what role academics and subject matter experts had in the war. The U.S. and Britain especially, but really all the great wartime powers, put some stock in the ability of their academics to solve tricky problems and make warfighters more efficient, more lethal, or more safe.

Some of this was having physicists and engineers create better weapons, like how the Applied Physics Laboratory was created to develop proximity fuses that made artillery and anti-aircraft weapons more effective. Some of this was having mathematicians figure out the best mix of rounds to load into machine guns of different types for the gunners to more quickly kill their targets. One great example is all the physicists and other scientists who worked on atom bombs.

But Wald was a statistician, and his job was to look at wartime processes and figure out how they could be improved. Wald was still, technically, an enemy alien, so he had an odd setup at the Statistical Research Group.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Planes hit in the fuel supply and engines often didn’t make it back to base, throwing off Navy and Army Air Corps data.

(U.S. Air Force)

As Jordan Ellenberg wrote in How Not To Be Wrong, there was a running joke in the SRG that Wald’s secretaries had to rip notepaper out of his hands as soon as he finished writing on it because he didn’t have the clearance to read his own work.

But Wald was an amazing mathematician, and it’s not like he was the type of Hungarian who might harbor sympathies for Hitler. Remember, he had fled Austria because Hitler would have had him killed, same as Albert Einstein and plenty of others. So, Wald used math to try to help the Allies kill the Axis, and he was in the SRG when the Navy came to them with a seemingly straightforward problem.

The Navy, and the Army Air Corps, was losing a lot of planes and crews to enemy fire. So, the Navy modeled where its planes showed the most bullet holes per square foot. Its officers reasoned that adding armor to these places would stop more bullets with the limited amount of armor they could add to each plane. They wanted the SRG to figure out the best balance of armor in each often-hit location.

(Adding armor adds weight, and planes can only takeoff with a certain amount of weight that needs to be balanced between plane and crew, ammo, fuel, and armor. Add too much armor, and you have a super safe bomber that can’t carry any bombs.)

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

While doomed planes did, sometimes, manage to land, they were usually lost at sea or in enemy territory. Abraham Wald successfully argued that the military should estimate where they were hit when determining what parts of planes they should armor.

(U.S. Navy)

But Wald picked out a flaw in their dataset that had eluded most others, a flaw that’s now known as “survivor bias.” The Navy and, really anyone else in the war, could typically only study the aircraft, vehicles, and men who survived a battle. After all, if a plane is shot down over the target, it lands on or near the target in territory the enemy controls. If it goes down while headed back to a carrier or island base, it will be lost at sea.

So the only planes the Navy was looking at were the ones that had landed back at ship or base. So, these weren’t examples of where planes were most commonly hit; they were examples of where planes could be hit and keep flying, because the crew and vital components had survived the bullet strikes.

Now, a lot of popular history says that Wald told the Navy to armor the opposite areas (or, told the Army Air Corps to armor the opposite areas, depending on which legend you see). But he didn’t, actually. What he did do was figure out a highly technical way to estimate where downed planes had been hit, and then he used that data to figure out how likely a hit to any given area was to down a plane.

What he found was that the Navy wanted to armor the least vulnerable parts of the plane. Basically, the Navy wasn’t seeing many hits to the engine and fuel supply, so the Navy officers decided those areas didn’t need as much protection. But Wald’s work found that those were the most vulnerable areas.

And that makes sense. After all, if you start leaking gas while still far from home, you likely won’t make it home. Have an engine destroyed even a few miles from home, and you likely won’t make it home. So the military took Wald’s work and applied armor to the areas he had defined as most vulnerable, primarily the engines, instead of putting armor on the areas with the most observed hits. And, guess what? Planes started surviving more hits.

Now, it didn’t win the war on its own, of course. Just like giving the Navy proximity fuses to make gunners more effective against enemy planes didn’t stop every Japanese dive bomber or Kamikaze attack, the armor didn’t save every plane and crew.

But winning a war isn’t about winning every engagement. It’s about paying less than you are willing to pay for victory and suffering less than you’re willing to suffer for each defeat. If you can do that, you’ll eventually win.

And Wald had driven down the price of success and the likelihood of failure for airplanes. Ironically, he died five years after the war in a plane crash, robbing us of his expertise in Korea and Vietnam, though his papers written during World War II continued to influence military decisions for decades.

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This Medal of Honor recipient blocked out being paralyzed to finish the mission

Drafted into the Army in March of 1968, George Lang graduated boot camp and went right into advanced infantry training before heading off to the jungles of Vietnam.


In February of 1969, Lang was scheduled to go on leave when an intelligence officer got word of enemy movement closing in.

Lang had just spit-shined his boots when the company first sergeant updated him on his new mission. Lang put his leave on hold and geared up without hesitation. He and his squad loaded up on “tangos” (boats) and proceeded down the river toward their objective.

Related: 6 questions you asked yourself after your first firefight

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Lang and his men maneuvered down the canal toward Kien Hoa Province in South Vietnam, where they eventually dismounted the “tangos” and proceeded inland on foot.

After only 50-meters of patrolling, the anxious squad came in contact with a series of bunkers, linked together by communication wires.

Taking point, Lang was first to spot five armed men guarding the area — he quickly engaged. After expelling a full magazine and getting hit by enemy artillery, the squad came under attack by an additional, but unexpected force — red ants.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews
The red ant. (Image by Wikipedia Commons)

The squad dashed toward a shallow pond while under fire to wash off the six-legged attackers. Cleaned off and ready to go, the soldiers located a blood trail and followed it to find the bodies of the VC troops they previously engaged.

Suddenly, another barrage of incoming fire opened up from a nearby bunker, killing a handful of Americans. Lang sprinted toward the dug-in position and took it out with his rifle and a few hand grenades.

Also Read: 3 key differences between Recon Marines and Marine Raiders

Lang destroyed a total of three enemy bunkers, which were also full of weapons. Upon returning to his squad, a deadly rocket detonated nearby, shooting hot shrapnel into Lang’s back, damaging his spinal cord.

Unable to move his legs and suffering unbelievable pain, Lang continued to direct his men. After several hours of coordinating troop movement and medical evacuations, Lang was finally removed from the battlefield and brought to safety for treatment.

On March 2, 1971, George Lang was awarded the Medal of Honor from former President Richard Nixon.

Check out the Medal of Honor Book‘s video below to hear this incredible story from the legend himself.

(Medal of Honor Book | YouTube)
MIGHTY CULTURE

US, UK, and Israeli F-35s join forces in Exercise Tri-Lightning

F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft from the U.S, United Kingdom, and Israel participated in Exercise Tri-Lightning over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, June 25, 2019.

Exercise Tri-Lightning was a one-day defensive counter air exercise involving friendly and adversary aircraft from the three participating countries and consisted of active and passive air defense operations.

This exercise is a demonstration of the interoperability between the U.S., U.K., and Israel using the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35I respectively.


“We build capacity with our strategic partners to harness our air component’s capabilities and skills,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, U.S. Air Forces Central Command commander. “The transatlantic strategic relationship between the U.S. and our allies and partners has been forged over the past seven decades and is built on a foundation of shared values, experience and vision.”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

A U.S. Air Force pilot from the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron enters the cockpit of a F-35A Lightning II before Exercise Tri-Lightning June 25, 2019, at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)

The U.S. Air Force F-35As flew from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, the Royal Air Force F-35Bs flew from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, and the Israeli Air Force F-35Is flew from Nevatim Air Base, Israel.

“Tri-Lightning was an exercise which had been planned for months and it provided an outstanding opportunity for the squadron to operate and learn from our fellow F-35 community,” said U.K. Wing Commander John Butcher, Squadron 617 commanding officer. “In addition it allowed us to share and gain valuable experience that we will be able to exploit during future training and potentially operational deployments, whether embedded on the Queen Elizabeth or from overseas air bases.”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

An F-35A Lightning II from the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron taxis the runway at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, before Exercise Tri-Lightning June 25, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)

The F-35s from the three nations played as primary friendly, or blue, force players in this exercise while a variety of other aircraft played the aggressor roles, simulating realistic combat situations between the advanced F-35s and previous generation fighters.

“The exercise today reflects the close cooperation between the participating nations, said Brig. Gen. Amnon Ein-Dar, Israel Chief of Air Staff. “This training opportunity between Israel, the U.S. and Britain, strengthens shared capabilities and overall cooperation amongst allies.”

This article originally appeared on United States Air Force. Follow @USAF on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Army Secretary tells recruiters ‘failure is not an option’

Traveling about half the time of the year as a recruiter, Staff Sgt. Jon McCoy heavily relies on his wife to take care of their toddler and home.

“The whole reason why I’m here is the support that my wife is able to provide,” he said Feb. 4, 2019, before a ceremony at the Pentagon to honor some of the Army’s best recruiters.

Stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, McCoy is one of two warrant officer recruiters who handle the western region from Colorado to as far as South Korea.


While he may rack up some frequent flyer miles during his travels, he also gets numerous soldiers to stay in the Army or troops in other branches to join it.

In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, McCoy had 150 individuals continue their careers as warrant officers in the Army — about one-third of all warrant officers boarded during that time.

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper honored McCoy and 12 other recruiters for their efforts this past quarter.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper, left, Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Army Vice Chief of Staff James McConville recognize Staff Sgt. Jon McCoy during an awards ceremony for recruiters at the Hall of Heroes, Pentagon, Washington D.C., Feb 4., 2019.

(Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)

“Readiness remains the Army’s top priority. Don’t doubt that. And you can’t achieve readiness without the right people,” Esper said. “It’s our recruiters serving across the country who are finding our nation’s best and brightest to join our ranks.”

Accessions are also now a crucial priority after Esper recently directed the Army’s recruiting efforts to modernize and give recruiters the resources they need to connect with qualified applicants.

Improvements to marketing and a larger presence in 22 target U.S. cities are also underway to bring greater awareness to the opportunities found within the Army.

Before the ceremony, Esper said he spoke to the group of recruiters and listened to their challenges and how they overcame them.

“The key to success is simple,” he said they told him. “It takes passion, it takes commitment, it takes honesty and transparency. That’s what America’s youth are looking for in a recruiter. That’s what their parents, their pastors, their counselors expect of us.”

Born and raised in Guam, Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Lujan works as a recruiter in Hagatna at the same station where he chose to enlist in the Army about 15 years ago.

Lujan, an aviation operations specialist, was able to sign up 19 recruits this past quarter.

“I’m able to relate to them and let them know that there’s more out there and that the Army is a stepping stone to help you get there,” he said.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper, right, speaks during an awards ceremony for recruiters at the Hall of Heroes, Pentagon, Washington D.C., Feb. 4, 2019.

(Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)

He also strives to be a positive member of his community. He often volunteers to help his daughter’s Girl Scouts troop, joins in cleanups of the coastline, and helped collect ,000 worth of items as part of relief efforts for Typhoon Mangkhut, which hit Guam in September.

“We’re just not there to recruit and bring people in,” he said. “We actually give back anytime that we can get.”

About 10,000 recruiters are spread out over 1,400 locations around the world, said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, commander of the Army Recruiting Command.

“These recruiters here stand in the trenches everyday as the face of the Army,” Muth told the audience. “Their accomplishments this past quarter is a testament to their professionalism, dedication and laser focus on the mission.”

Being a recruiter still remains a difficult task to ensure the Army fills its ranks with quality applicants.

Only 29 percent of today’s youth are able to meet the minimum requirements to join the service, Esper said, and only 4 percent of them have the propensity to serve.

On top of that, the service is up against the greatest economy in decades, he said.

“This is a challenge that we must overcome,” Esper said. “We have no other choice. Failure is not an option.”

But that task should not rest solely on the shoulders of a few, he said, adding all soldiers need to educate people on the opportunities the service offers.

“Recruiting is everyone’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s the Army’s mission, not just ours. We are all recruiters.”

MIGHTY CULTURE

This heroic Navy SEAL now works to save working dogs

You probably know the name James Hatch — or maybe you’ve heard of Jimmy Hatch. He’s famous for one of the worst days of his life. The Navy SEAL was on one of the ill-fated missions to rescue Bowe Bergdahl after the soldier walked off of his base in Afghanistan. This mission resulted in the death of a military canine and left Hatch with a crippling wound to his leg.


This is what happens when a SEAL brings a dog to an elementary school.

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Now, Hatch is working to help working dogs, especially police and military dogs, stay safe on the job.

The Spikes K9 Fund, named for Hatch’s first working dog, a SEAL dog that died during a mission in Iraq in 2006, runs campaigns that each focus on a particular need of working dogs.

The Piper Campaign focuses on cold-weather gear and is named for a dog that kept wildlife safely away from planes, even when the snow was a foot deep on the ground. The Diesel Campaign covers medical expenses for wounded or retired working dogs. And the Krijger Campaign raises money for ballistic vests for dogs, vests that might have saved Hatch’s dogs, Spike and Remco.

Remco was the dog working with Hatch on the mission to rescue Bergdahl. He was tragically lost to insurgent gunfire on the mission.

The fund says that it has helped 710 dogs so far, and that’s no small feat. Ballistics vests for dogs can easily cost over ,000, and veterinary services for wounded, injured, and retired dogs can quickly become quite pricy as well. But dogs save lives in combat situations, so saving the dogs can help save police officer lives.

And the fund has had some high-profile successes, including when they convinced Anderson Cooper to not only donate himself, but also to speak and get others to open their wallets.

The video at top tells the story of a dog that was shot in the line of duty, but was able to go back to work with a vest provided by the students of an elementary school.

You can learn more about Hatch and his efforts at spikesk9fund.org.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

The surprising way the Navy wants to repair H-53 rotors

Fleet Readiness Center East is celebrating an achievement, and likely first, in using 3D printing and polymers as a supply solution to repair components for the H-53E.

Research and Engineering Group engineers used a polymer additive manufacturing process — fused deposition modeling — to produce replacement blade inspection method vents (BIM vents) for the aircraft’s main rotor blades.

“I believe this is the first time a polymer AM process has been used to build a flight critical repair component in (Naval Air Systems Command),” said Douglas Greenwood, AM Lead for the Advanced Technology Integrated Product Team. “We don’t usually, if ever, see ‘polymer AM’ and ‘flight critical’ in the same sentence.”


According to Joshua Peedin, senior engineer for H-53 Rotor Systems, artisans in Blade Shop 94304 identified integral damage in the parts during the repair process in 2016. It was a discovery of cracks in the foam beneath the root fairing that pointed to the damage in the vents.

The BIM vents work as part of the indication system to alert pilots to pressure loss in the blades. The BIM vents are critical application items, which means they have a critical function for a major component; not critical in terms of safety of flight.

Peedin said that unavailable parts led him in the direction of the solution. “I contacted our logisticians and (the OEM) to see if we could buy any replacements,” he said. “Neither had any available, so I checked the technical drawings to see if we could manufacture our own replacements.” He said making composite molded replacements were considered, but the composite material was too rigid to meet the required specifications.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Aircraft Mechanical Parts Repairer Todd Bridgers applies a gel viscosity instant adhesive to a blade inspection method (BIM) vent — produced at Fleet Readiness Center East — before applying it to an H-53 blade.

Peedin said Materials Engineers Rob Thompson and Andrea Boxell, from the Polymers and Composites Branch, pointed out FRC East’s capability of 3D printing the part using a material that is chemically similar to the original material — a high-performance, thermoplastic polyetherimide. He also got the help of FRC East Digital Data Center members Justin Reynolds and Todd Spurgeon, AM subject matter experts, to redesign the BIM vents to ensure design compatibility with FRC East’s 3D printers.

“We had many meetings throughout the process to ensure everyone was in agreement to move forward,” said Peedin.

The prototype repair parts were tested under pressure and heat to ensure the repair could withstand in-service conditions and future blade repairs. The local engineers developed, documented, reviewed, and approved the repair procedure through AIR-4.3 Air Vehicle Engineering. The repair was first successfully demonstrated on a scrap main rotor blade asset. The most recent BIM vent repair was the second performed on a production main rotor blade asset using the AM parts.

Greenwood said the accomplishment is also noteworthy, as it demonstrates the flexibility of AM processes. He said FRC East primarily uses the AM printers to make sheet metal form blocks, prototype parts, visual aids, support equipment and many other kinds of parts to support FRC East production.

“All of those parts are built using materials different from the BIM vent parts and none of them are intended for use in flight,” said Greenwood. “Nevertheless, we are using the same printers with a different material to make the BIM vent repair parts.”

Greenwood added, the BIM vent parts mark a new milestone for FRC East. “This is an even bigger achievement for FRC East,” he said. “Using our printers to make polymer AM repair parts on H-53E main rotor blades that will enter the supply system and be used by the fleet.”

The accomplishment offers benefits in the way of cost avoidance, production, and aircraft readiness.

Peedin said the estimated cost to make the type of repair to blades through fused disposition modeling is about ,000 per blade. The pre-existing alternative to the fused deposition modeling repair was to pay the OEM to overhaul the main rotor blade for about 0,000 per blade; a 5,000 savings per blade.

Peedin said, FRC East is now able to keep a steady flow of main rotor blade repair work in the blade shop. “This will lead to a reduction of backordered repairs and ultimately contribute to improvements in the H-53 readiness posture,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Naval Air Systems Command. Follow @NAVAIRNews on Twitter.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Marines print barracks in 40 hours with expeditionary setup

The Marine Corps is leading the way in employing advanced technologies and robotic construction.

In early August 2018, the Additive Manufacturing Team at Marine Corps Systems Command teamed up with Marines from I Marine Expeditionary Force to operate the world’s largest concrete 3D printer at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Champaign, Illinois. As a joint effort between the Marine Corps, Army and Navy Seabees, an expeditionary concrete 3D printer was used to print a 500-square-foot barracks hut in 40 hours.


The Marine Corps is currently staffing a deliberate urgent needs statement and concept of employment for this technology. The results of the field user evaluation will inform future requirements to give the Corps a concrete construction additive manufacturing program of record.

“This exercise had never been done before,” said Capt. Matthew Friedell, AM project officer in MCSC’s Operations and Programs/G-3. “People have printed buildings and large structures, but they haven’t done it onsite and all at once. This is the first-in-the-world, onsite continuous concrete print.”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Marines from I Marine Expeditionary Force learn how to operate the world’s largest concrete 3D printer as it constructs a 500-square-foot barracks hut at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Champaign, Illinois.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The team started with a computer-aided design model on a 10-year old computer, concrete and a 3D printer. Once they hit print, the concrete was pushed through the print head and layered repeatedly to build the walls. In total, the job took 40 hours because Marines had to monitor progress and continually fill the printer with concrete. However, if there was a robot to do the mixing and pumping, the building could easily be created in one day, Friedell said.

“In 2016, the commandant said robots should be doing everything that is dull, dangerous and dirty, and a construction site on the battlefield is all of those things,” Friedell said.

The ability to build structures and bases while putting fewer Marines in danger would be a significant accomplishment, he said.

“In active or simulated combat environments, we don’t want Marines out there swinging hammers and holding plywood up,” said Friedell. “Having a concrete printer that can make buildings on demand is a huge advantage for Marines operating down range.”

It normally takes 10 Marines five days to construct a barracks hut out of wood. With this FUE, the Marine Corps proved four Marines with a concrete printer can build a strong structure in less than two days. Ideally, the Corps’ use of concrete printers will span the full range of military operations, from combat environments to humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

The world’s largest concrete 3D printer constructs a 500-square-foot barracks hut at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in mid-August in Champaign, Illinois.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

As the first military services on site in natural disasters, the Navy and Marine Corps are great at providing food and water, but struggle to provide shelter, Friedell said. In many locations, cement is easier to acquire than wood. During humanitarian or disaster relief missions, Marines could safely and quickly print houses, schools and community buildings to replace those destroyed.

“This capability would enable a great partnership with the local community because it is low cost, easy to use, and robotics could print the buildings,” Friedell said. “We can bring forward better structures, houses and forward operating bases with less manpower and fewer Marines in harm’s way.”

The AM Team plans to conduct further testing and wants to get the capability into the hands of more Marines to inform future requirements for cutting-edge technology and autonomous systems.

“Our future operating environment is going to be very kinetic and dangerous because we don’t necessarily know what we’re going into,” said Friedell. “The more we can pull Marines out of those potentially dangerous situations — whether it’s active combat or natural disaster — and place robotics there instead, it helps us accomplish the mission more efficiently.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Marine Corps. Follow @USMC on Twitter.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

KC-46 debuts at Paris air show amid news of more delays

The Air Force’s new KC-46 Pegasus tanker landed on the flight line at France’s Paris-Le Bourget Airport June 15, 2019, ahead of its public debut at the air show.

But the overseas unveiling comes on the heels of a new government watchdog report outlining new concerns for the KC-46 program, and amid continued challenges with manufacturer Boeing Co. regarding assembly line inspection.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said it will take some time for the new inspection process to become standard at Boeing’s production facility. The inspections are supposed to correct actions that set back the program earlier this year.


The Air Force in April 2019 cleared Boeing to resume aircraft deliveries following two stand-downs over foreign object debris (FOD) — trash, tools, nuts and bolts, and other miscellaneous items — found scattered inside the aircraft.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

A KC-46 Pegasus.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jeremy Wentworth)

Roper on June 17, 2019, said more FOD issues were discovered within the last week.

“It’s slowing down deliveries,” Roper said here during the airshow.

Currently, the production is averaging one aircraft delivery to the Air Force per month, well below the rate of delivery the service had expected, Roper said.

“We’re currently not accepting at three airplanes per month, which was the original plan. But we’re not going to be pushing on a faster delivery schedule in a way that would put the rigor of the inspection at risk,” he said.

All aircraft under assembly are supposed to be swept routinely for debris. Loose objects are dangerous because they can cause damage over time.

The first halt in accepting KC-46 deliveries occurred in February, and the decision to halt acceptance a second time was made March 23, 2019, officials said at the time.

“We’re just going to have to stay focused, have to continue verifying through these inspections, and what we hope we’ll see is that [detection will happen earlier] for total foreign object debris to come down,” Roper said.

On top of the FOD issue, a new Government Accountability Office report says that the KC-46 — which has had its share of issues even before the FOD discoveries — has a long road ahead for fixing other setbacks that still plague the aircraft.

The GAO found that while both Boeing and the Air Force are aware of or have begun implementing solutions to fix the aircraft, the repeated repairs and recurring delays in the program will likely cause other hiccups in the company’s delivery requirement, according to a report released June 12, 2019.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

The KC-46 Pegasus deploys the centerline boom for the first time Oct. 9, 2015.

(Boeing photo by John D. Parker)

As previously reported, one of the main issues surrounds poorly-timed testing. But GAO said a new issue lies with delivery of the wing refueling pods, which would allow for simultaneous refueling of two Navy or allied aircraft, or for aircraft that do not use a boom system.

Since the company did not start the process for testing the wing refueling pods on time, GAO found, it is not expected to meet the delivery date for the pods, nearly 34 months after the delivery was originally planned.

“Boeing continued to have difficulty providing design documentation needed to start Federal Aviation Administration testing for the wing aerial refueling pods over the past year, which caused the additional delays beyond what [GAO] reported last year,” the report said. “Specifically, program officials anticipate that the Air Force will accept the first 18 aircraft by August 2019, and nine sets of wing aerial refueling pods by June 2020 — which together with two spare engines constitute the contractual delivery requirement contained in the development contract.”

GAO officials noted the Air Force still grapples with other previously-known problems with the aircraft. For example, the service said in January 2019 said it would accept the tanker, which is based on the 767 airliner design, despite the fact it has a number of deficiencies, mainly with its Remote Vision System.

The RVS, which is made by Rockwell Collins and permits the in-flight operator to view the refueling system below the tanker, has been subject to frequent software glitches. The first tankers were delivered in spite of that problem.

The systemic issue, which will require a software and hardware update, may take three to four years to fix, officials have said.

GAO estimates it will take the same amount of time to fix and FAA-certify the tanker’s telescoping boom, which has previously been described as “too stiff”for lighter aircraft to receive fuel.

“The KC-46 boom currently requires more force to compress it sufficiently to maintain refueling position,” the report said. “Pilots of lighter receiver aircraft, such as the A-10 and F-16, reported the need to use more power to move the boom forward while in contact with the boom to maintain refueling position.”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

An A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Pilots also pointed out the same power is needed to disconnect from the boom, which could damage the aircraft or the boom upon release.

The solution requires a hardware change and “will then take additional time to retrofit about 106 aircraft in lots 1 to 8,” GAO said. “The total estimated cost for designing and retrofitting aircraft is more than 0 million.”

It’s unclear if the latest findings will impede prospects for future international sales, especially at the Paris air show.

Jim McAleese, expert defense industry analyst and founder of McAleese Associates, said that the KC-46 is still the U.S.’s latest aviation program, and international partners will be curious about it.

“Now that [the Air Force] is accepting deliveries, KC-46 is high visibility for international sales,” McAleese recently told Military.com.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan on June 17, 2019, said its presence is key to showing U.S. capabilities abroad regardless of “minor” issues.

“KC-46 really is a great airplane,” Donovan said. “What we’re talking about here are sort of minor things when you take a look at the whole capability of the airplane.”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

A KC-46 Pegasus.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)

Roper added, “The foreign object debris is not a reflection of the end-state performance. We’re not happy with how FOD is being handled … but once we get the FOD out of the airplane the hard way, our operators are getting good performance out in the field.”

The Air Force has received six KC-46 tankers at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, and five at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, according to a service release.

Designated aircraft and aircrew at McConnell earlier this month began Initial Operational Testing and Evaluation (IOTE), which will provide a glimpse “of how well the aircraft performs under the strain of operations,” the release said.

“As the KC-46 program proceeds with IOTE, participation in the Paris Air Show and other international aviation events serves as [an] opportunity to increase understanding of ally and partner capabilities and proficiencies, while promoting standardization and interoperability of equipment,” the Air Force said.

This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Taliban went from international pariah to U.S. peace partner in Afghanistan

In the mid-1990s, U.S. oil company Unocal attempted to secure a gas-pipeline deal with the Taliban, which had seized control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, after a devastating civil war.


It was the United States’ first attempt to forge a partnership with the fundamentalist Taliban regime, which was not recognized by the international community.

Unocal even flew senior Taliban members to Texas in 1997 in an attempt to come to an agreement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who had served as a State Department official when Ronald Reagan was president, worked as a consultant for the now-defunct company.

Khalilzad, who met with the Taliban members in the city of Houston, publicly voiced support for the radical Islamists at the time. The “Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran — it is closer to the Saudi model,” Khalilzad wrote in a 1996 op-ed for The Washington Post. “The group upholds a mix of traditional Pashtun values and an orthodox interpretation of Islam.”

Negotiations over the pipeline collapsed in 1998, when Al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. By then, the terrorist group, led by Osama bin Laden, had relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan, where it was offered safe harbor by the Taliban.

Suddenly, the Taliban went from a potential U.S. economic partner to an international pariah that was hit by U.S. sanctions and air strikes.

Three years later, the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime after Al-Qaeda carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania that killed nearly 3,000 people.

But now, after waging a deadly, nearly 19-year insurgency that has killed several thousand U.S. troops, the Taliban has regained its status as a potential U.S. partner.

On February 29, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending the United States’ longest military action. The deal lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the insurgents and a pledge to hold talks over a political settlement with the Afghan government — which it so far has refused to do.

The deal — signed before a bevy of international officials and diplomats in Doha, Qatar — has given the Taliban what it has craved for years: international legitimacy and recognition.

Meanwhile, the agreement has undermined the internationally recognized government in Kabul, which was not a party to the accord.

The architect of the deal was Khalilzad, the U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan, who secured a deal following 18 months of grueling negotiations with the militants in Qatar. The Afghan-born Khalilzad had served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq in the intervening years since working as a Unocal adviser.

“There’s a 20-year bell curve, from 1998 to 2018, when the Taliban went from partner to peak pariah and now back to partner,” says Ted Callahan, a security expert on Afghanistan. But the “changes that have occurred have been less within the Taliban movement and more based on U.S. instrumentalism and war fatigue.”

The extremist group’s transformation to a potential U.S. ally was considered unthinkable until recently.

During its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban oppressed women, massacred ethnic and religious minorities, and harbored Al-Qaeda.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, fueled the illicit opium trade, and sheltered several terrorist groups.

“U.S. officials are selling the Taliban as a partner when it is anything but,” says Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at a Washington-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies, and editor of the Long War Journal. “This is a fiction made up by U.S. officials who are desperate for a deal that will cover the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

Radicalized In Pakistan

The Taliban, which means “students” in Pashto, emerged in 1994 in northwestern Pakistan following the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The predominantly ethnic Pashtun group first appeared in ultraconservative Islamic madrasahs, or religious schools, in Pakistan, where millions of Afghans had fled as refugees. Funded by Saudi Arabia, the madrasahs radicalized thousands of Afghans who joined the mujahedin, the U.S.-backed Islamist rebels who fought the Soviets.

The Taliban first appeared in the southern city of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, in 1994, two years after the mujahedin seized power in the country. Infighting among mujahedin factions fueled a devastating civil war that killed more than 100,000 people in Kabul.

The Taliban promised to restore security and enforce its ultraconservative brand of Islam. It captured Kabul in 1996 and two years later controlled some 90 percent of the country.

Neighboring Pakistan is widely credited with forming the Taliban, an allegation it has long denied. Islamabad was among only three countries — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to recognize the Taliban regime when it ruled Afghanistan.

The Taliban was led by its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed cleric who was a mujahedin. Omar died of natural causes at a hospital in Pakistan in 2013, with the group’s leadership covering up his death for two years. He was believed to be leading the Afghan Taliban insurgency from within Pakistan.

War-weary Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban, which cracked down on corruption and lawlessness and brought stability across much of the country.

But the welcome was short-lived. The religious zealots enforced strict edicts based on their extreme interpretation of Shari’a law — banning TV and music, forcing men to pray and grow beards, making women cover themselves from head to toe, and preventing women and girls from working or going to school.

The Taliban amputated the hands of thieves, publicly flogged people for drinking alcohol, and stoned to death those who engage in adultery. Executions were common.

Besides its notorious treatment of women, the Taliban also attracted international condemnation when in 2001 it demolished the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, a testament to the country’s pre-Islamic history and a treasured, unique world cultural monument.

‘We Were All Scared’

Orzala Nemat is a leading women’s rights activist in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, she risked her life by creating a network of underground girls schools across the country. Classes were held secretly in living rooms, tents, and abandoned buildings. The teachers were often older girls or educated women.

Girls attending the classes would often come in twos to avoid suspicion and carry a Koran, Islam’s holy book, in case they were stopped by the Taliban.

“We were all scared,” says Nemat, who now heads a leading Kabul think tank. “They would probably flog us, put us in prison, and punish us [if we were caught].”

Under the Taliban, Isaq Ahmadi earned a living by playing soccer for one of the dozen teams created and funded by various Taliban leaders in Kabul. While the Taliban banned many sports and other forms of public entertainment, soccer and cricket thrived.

“It was a very difficult and dark time,” he says. “There were no jobs, food shortages, and no public services.”

During Taliban rule, the United Nations said 7.5 million Afghans faced starvation. Even then, the Taliban restricted the presence of aid groups in Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime generated most of its money from Islamic taxes on citizens and handouts from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, its only allies. The Taliban failed to provide basic needs and Kabul lay in tatters after the brutal civil war of 1992-96.

U.S.-Led Invasion

The Taliban attracted the world’s attention after the September 11 attacks on the United States. The regime had harbored bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the terrorist attacks. But the Taliban steadfastly refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders for prosecution and, in October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan.

By December, the Taliban regime was toppled with help from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Most Taliban leaders, including Al-Qaeda founder bin Laden, evaded capture and resettled in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the southwestern city of Quetta, where its leadership is still based.

By 2005, the Taliban had reorganized and unleashed a deadly insurgency against foreign troops and the new democratically elected government in Kabul. Despite U.S.-led surges in troops and an escalation in air strikes, international and Afghan forces were unable to stop the Taliban from extending its influence in the vast countryside.

The Taliban enjoyed safe havens and backing from Pakistan, a claim Islamabad has denied. The insurgency was also funded by the billions of dollars the group made from the illicit opium trade.

Today, the militants control or contest more territory — around half of the country — than at any other time since 2001.

Meanwhile, the Kabul government is unpopular, corrupt, bitterly divided, and heavily dependent on foreign assistance. Government forces have suffered devastatingly high numbers of casualties against the Taliban.

Negotiating An End To War

In the fall of 2010, U.S. officials secretly met a young Taliban representative outside the southern German city of Munich. It was the first time the Taliban and the United States showed they were open to talks over a negotiated end to the war.

But in the intervening years, meaningful U.S.-Taliban talks failed to take off, hampered by mutual distrust, missed opportunities, protests by the Afghan government, and the deaths of two successive Taliban leaders.

For years, U.S. policy was to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. But with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with state officials — whom they view as illegitimate — the peace process was deadlocked.

Controversially, U.S. policy changed in 2018 when Khalilzad was appointed as special envoy for peace and he opened direct negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar without the presence of the Afghan government. Eighteen months later, the sides signed the landmark deal aimed at ending the war.

“The U.S. has been sidelining the Afghan government for years, first by refusing to allow it to be involved with negotiations, then by signing the deal without the Afghan government as a partner,” Roggio says.

“The Taliban maintains the Afghan government is merely a ‘puppet’ of the U.S,” he adds. “The U.S. has done everything in its power to prove this point.”

Road Map For Afghanistan

The prospect of the Taliban returning to the fold as part of a future power-sharing agreement has fueled angst among Afghans, many of whom consider the militants to be terrorists and remember the strict, backward societal rules they enforced when they were in power.

More than 85 percent of Afghans have no sympathy for the Taliban, according to the Asia Foundation’s 2019 survey. Urban respondents (88.6 percent) were more inclined than rural respondents (83.9 percent) to have no sympathy for the militants.

But the Taliban’s adherence to ultraconservative Islam and the Pashtun tribal code has struck a chord with some currently living under the movement’s thumb in rural Afghanistan, which has borne the brunt of the war and where life has improved little. But those ideas are largely alien in major urban centers that have witnessed major social, economic, and democratic gains over the past 18 years.

“The main difference is that the Taliban of today, like Afghans generally, are more worldly in terms of their exposure to media, their increased engagement with various international actors and, at least for the leadership, the greater wealth they command, both individually and as a movement,” Callahan says.

But the Taliban’s “fundamental approach to governing, which is very maximalist and involves the imposition of a uniform moral order, stands in stark contrast to the more liberal norms that have evolved since 2001, mainly in urban areas.”

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, millions of girls have gone to school and continue to study, women have joined the workforce in meaningful numbers, and dozens of women are members of parliament and work in the government or diplomatic corps.

Afghanistan also has a thriving independent media scene in an area of the world where press freedoms are severely limited. Under the Taliban, all forms of independently reported news were banned.

There was only state-owned radio, the Taliban’s Voice of Sharia, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

The independent media have come under constant attack and pressure from the Taliban and Islamic State militants, which have killed dozens of reporters. The attacks have made Afghanistan one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.

The Taliban has been projecting itself as a more moderate force, pledging not to monopolize power in Afghanistan. But few believe that the militants have changed.

“There is little difference between the Taliban of 1994 and the Taliban of today,” Roggio says. “If anything, the group has become more sophisticated in its communications and negotiations. Its ideology has not changed. Its leadership has naturally changed with the deaths of its leaders [over the years], but this hasn’t changed how it operates.”

Red Lines

The Taliban has said it will protect women’s rights, but only if they don’t violate Islam or Afghan values, suggesting it will curtail some of the fragile freedoms gained by women in the past two decades.

Many Afghan women fear that their rights enshrined in the constitution will be given away as part of a peace settlement with the Taliban. The constitution guarantees the same rights to women as men, although in practice women still face heavy discrimination in society, particularly in rural areas.

But the Taliban has demanded a new constitution based on “Islamic principles,” prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners. As an Islamic republic, Afghanistan’s laws and constitution are based on Islam, although there are more liberal and democratic elements within it.

Farahnaz Forotan launched an online campaign, #MyRedLine, in March 2018. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan women have joined the campaign to speak about the freedoms and rights they are not willing to give up in the name of peace with the Taliban.

Forotan, a journalist, says she wanted to let Afghan decision-makers know that peace cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights and freedoms of the country’s women.

“Almost everything has changed from that time,” she says, referring to Taliban rule. “We have made a lot of progress. We have a civil society, an independent press, and freedoms. People are more aware of their social and political rights.”

Many Afghans support a negotiated end to the decades-old war in Afghanistan, but not at any price.

“I support the peace process with the Taliban, but only if women’s freedoms are safeguarded,” says Ekram, a high-school student from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, a relatively peaceful and prosperous region near the border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

“Under no circumstances do we want a peace deal that sacrifices our freedoms and democracy,” Ekram says. “That wouldn’t be peace at all.”

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

Military Life

3 myths about females in combat positions, dispelled

Women have always been present in war, whether it be as nurses tending to the wounded or in other career fields not typically exposed to combat. The truth is, even women who are not designated in combat positions still experience run-ins with enemy fire and combat situations and continue to do their jobs.


The recent lifting of the restriction that kept women out of combat positions stirred a flurry of controversy. Even still, some wonder if this was the best choice for the military because of the “myths” that have surrounded women and their military service.

Let’s dispel a few of those myths.

3. Myth: Women are too nurturing to pull the trigger.

Yes, women have children, and yes, women often are nurturing, but saying a woman wouldn’t pull the trigger to save herself and her fellow service members just because it’s not thought to be in “her nature,” is obviously false. Women who choose to be in the military and sign up for a combat position know what’s at stake and are aware they’re not out there to play house or coddle babies.

Although you may not think of your mother going out and kicking some ass on the front line, there are women out there who would love to take a stab at it (literally). That’s why the military decided to allow women to choose if they think they have the ability to fight alongside their male counterparts in combat.

Not every woman has children but, even if motherhood instills a nurturing disposition, you can bet that it only would further drive a woman to accomplish the mission and destroy whatever lies in her path to keep her children, and her team for that matter, safe.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews
Do animals coddle enemies trying to attack their family? Think about that.

2. Myth: Women are not strong enough.

Long before the U.S. military allowed women to enter career fields other than nursing, there was a stigma centered on females’ physical capabilities. To date, standards in every military branch are separated and women’s qualifications on PT tests are lower than men’s.

But just because women perform their PT tests at a lower standard than men doesn’t mean that some women have not exceeded the minimum, and even surpassed men in their ability.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews
Or literally carried them. (U.S. Army photo)

Combat position requirements will not be lowered for women but that doesn’t mean some can’t rise to the challenge. The women who have broken the stigma of weakness by meeting the physical qualifications of combat positions led the way for others to break free and challenge themselves.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews
All the way. (U.S. Army photo)

1. Myth: PMS will get in the way of completing duties

The biggest myth is about the mood swings that spring out of the blue, making the work environment tense. If this is the case, then every workplace in the U.S. is always tense because women work everywhere and, surprisingly, still do their jobs — and do them well.

When it comes down to it, women know being in the military is not about being pretty, smelling nice, or letting emotions go wild on those around them. How do you think women in the military are doing their jobs right now? Women are professionals and can handle day-to-day stressors and the deployment conditions just like men. PMS is more of an issue for some of the men in the military than the women who serve.

Recently, a survey taken by SOCOM on the opinion of male special-ops personnel included statements such as, “I think PMS is terrible, possibly the worst. I cannot stand my wife for about a week out of every month. I like that I can come to work and not have to deal with that (E-6, SWCC).”

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews
PMS: Worse than ISIS.

Apparently, women are men’s worst nightmares during PMS.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Beloved Coast Guard veteran and crossing guard, ‘Mr. Bob,’ dies while saving two children from speeding car

Every child can tell you the name of their school’s crossing guard. At Christ the King Catholic School in Kansas City, KS, 88-year-old Robert James Nill, better known and loved as “Mr. Bob,” was one of the best.


Tuesday, Mr. Bob made the ultimate sacrifice for two of his students when a speeding car careened through the school’s crosswalk. The Washington Post reported that a few minutes before school started at 8 a.m., two boys in grades third and fifth stepped off the curb in front of the school. It was about five minutes before 8 a.m., five minutes until the first bell rang and Nill’s job ushering kids through the crosswalk would be over for the morning. Two young boys, in third and fifth grade, stepped off the curb. Nill motioned for them to step back, said school principal Cathy Fithian. He saw a black sedan speeding toward them and likely sensed it wasn’t stopping or slowing, despite Nill’s handheld stop sign and the school zone’s flashing lights. The two boys came running into Fithian’s office in tears, screaming for Mr. Bob. The principal consoled them and then went outside to find an awful scene as first responders swarmed the intersection, she told The Washington Post on Tuesday night.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

“Mr. Bob,” Robert James Nill was the beloved crossing guard at a Kansas City, Kansas school.

Nill was struck by the vehicle and ultimately succumbed to his injuries.

Reports say the driver was likely speeding but did not flee the scene. The driver was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for injuries.

Nill served in the United States Coast Guard and following his service, went on to a career in banking. After retirement, he wanted something to look forward to every morning, to get him out of bed. His family told FOX 4 Kansas City that he felt young at heart and didn’t want to spend his golden years sitting around. “This was something I think he felt like he could help children and help himself feel good about what he was doing,” said Randy Nill, Bob’s nephew.

Being a crossing guard brought him that joy and sense of purpose. By the outpouring of support on social media, it is apparent that his joy and love of life were contagious.

“Bob was such a fixture at my children’s school,” Connie Lynn Worrell commented on Facebook. “We would wave at him every day and in the morning I always made sure to wave at him after dropping off the boys. This is truly heartbreaking. He will be sorely missed.”

MIGHTY CULTURE

5 reasons to plant your Victory Garden

America didn’t just call on the troops to wage war, she called upon all her people to fight food shortage and a depression with gardens — “Victory gardens” — to be specific. In the early 1940s, when food rationing came into place, everyday Americans were turning up their yards to produce not just enough food for their families, but for their neighbors as well.

It’s safe to say a worldwide pandemic has given us cause to unearth the history of Victory Gardens and take the matter of a potential food shortage into our own, capable hands.

Here’s a thing or two you need to know about how to raise your shovels as your grandparents or great grandparents did long ago.


Canned food was limited 

Canned food was rationed both to preserve tin for military use but also to decrease the strain on food transportation. Reducing “food miles” with sustainable urban agriculture was exactly how families and friends stayed supplied with fresh produce. Put down the can of lima beans you’re never going to eat and pick up some seeds instead.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

The know-how

Victory gardens were pushed at a national level, and informational pamphlets (pre-internet) were distributed. Community committees were organized to both assist newcomers and inform neighbors of what was being grown and where. Luckily for us, there’s a whole internet full of information, and local agricultural extensions to call, ensuring social distancing is still met.

So easy a child could do it 

Children participated in gardening both out of necessity and to ensure all that good food knowledge didn’t go to waste. Need something for your kids to do? Let them tend to your budding garden at home; it’s a delicious form of education.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

It doesn’t take a farm

The average American lawn has more than enough space to grow everything your family needs and more. Learning what plants like to cohabitate in the soil will maximize your growing potential.

Never forget 

How to rely on ourselves has been a skill lost to the “lazy” days of supermarkets stocked to the brim with internationally-grown produce. It may have taken a pandemic, but re-educating America on how to fend for themselves needs to be a skillset we value once again. We need to pass down precious knowledge of food and to become aware once again of the immense value food has in our lives.

Great things have happened throughout history during times of struggle. Every single one of us has the opportunity to make this world better, stronger and more resilient than ever before.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Paralyzed for 27 years, veteran walks with exoskeleton

Since being paralyzed almost three decades ago, Dean Juntunen has competed in more than 90 wheelchair marathons, continued snowmobiling and four-wheeling, and taken up kayaking.

Now, Juntunen is taking another significant step. And then another step. And then another.

“Just standing talking to you is interesting,” Juntunen said. “I had not gone from a sitting position to a standing position in 27 years. I got injured in ’91, so just standing is fun. I like just standing up and moving around.”


The medically retired Air Force captain is walking with the aid of a wearable exoskeleton robotic device as part of a study at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

About 160 veterans are participating in the program at 15 VA Centers across the country. After completing a series of rigorous training sessions, veterans in this study will take the exoskeleton home for use in everyday life.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Juntunen executes a challenging 180-pivot with the aid of VA trainers Cheryl Lasselle (left) and Zach Hodgson.

Participants must meet certain criteria, including bone density. Users should be between about 5-foot-3 and 6-foot-3 and cannot weigh more than 220 pounds.

“Most paralyzed people, if not all, lose bone density,” Juntunen said. “So, you have to pass a bone density scan to qualify for this program. I happen to have unusually good bone density and I’ve been paralyzed for 27 years.”

Juntunen was on active duty when he was injured in between assignments from Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls, Montana, to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, when his life changed.

Fell 30 feet, broke spinal cord in two places

An avid hiker and outdoorsman, Juntunen’s life changed when a tree branch gave way and he fell 30 feet to the ground.

“I landed on my back in a fetal position,” said Juntunen, who lives near Mass City in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Spine folded in half, broke five vertebrae, wrecked my spinal cord in two spots.”

“Well, I have a hard time saying no and they strongly asked me to do it. So, I decided, that’s probably going to be fun playing with that robot. I guess I’ll make a bunch of trips to Milwaukee.”

Juntunen, who has an engineering degree, said the hardest part of mastering the robotic device was developing balance.

“One of the hardest things about getting paralyzed is relearning your sense of balance because you can’t feel anything through your butt,” he said. “I’m paralyzed from the base of the rib cage down, so it’s like I’m sitting on a stump all the time.”

Turns and pivots presented challenges, as did going up an incline, he said.

“I liken this to walking on stilts for an able-bodied person because you have to feel the ground through wooden or metal legs. That’s basically what I’m doing in this thing.”

“I don’t really describe this as walking, more like riding the robot,” he said. “The interesting thing is, my brain feels like it’s walking. I’m a complete injury, so I can’t feel anything. My brain has no idea what my legs are doing, but nonetheless, it feels like I’m walking in my head.”

Not all participants are able to sufficiently master the nuances of the 51-pound device to meet the requirements of the study.

Basic training needed to master balance skills

“Some people don’t get past what we call the basic training,” said Joe Berman, Milwaukee VA project manager. “To be eligible to go into the advanced training, you have to be able to master some balance skills and do five continuous steps with assistance within five training sessions. That’s been shown by previous research to be a good predictor of who is going to succeed in passing the advanced skills that we require to take the device home.”

The training sessions at Milwaukee last about two to two-and-a-half hours, usually twice a day. With the aid of certified trainers, Juntunen walked up to a quarter mile, starting with the lightly trafficked tunnel between the main hospital and the Spinal Cord Injury Center.

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

When Juntunen takes the device home, companions trained to assist will replace the VA trainers.

He eventually progressed to one of the main public entries to the hospital, which had inclines, carpeted areas, and pedestrian traffic.

“The inclines are harder,” Juntunen said. “Here, you’ve got short incline, then flat, then incline, so the transitions are harder. You’re in balance going down and when it flattens out, you have to change where your balance is, so the transition is a little trickier. Coming up is the worst, up the ramps is the hardest. You kind of have to reach behind you with the crutches. It’s more exertion and more difficult on the balance because the robot is always perpendicular to the surface.”

Mastering use of the device in the public space was part of the requirement before Juntunen can take it home.

“In order to take the device home, they need to be able to navigate up and down Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant ramps and go through doorways,” said Zach Hodgson, a physical therapist at the Milwaukee VA and part of the certified training team. “Right now, we have three trainers, but at home, he’ll need a companion to walk with him at all times. It’s looking at all those skills we need to get to and then making plans based on how he’s progressing.”

“He’s going to use this device in his home and community so we really get a good idea about how useful these devices are,” Hodgson said.

At home, companions replace the VA trainers to help with the device. In Juntunen’s case, he’s getting help from his kayaking buddies.

“They’ve seen me transferring and stuff,” he said. “They know I can sit and balance, sit on the edge of my kayak before I transfer up to the seat. So, that’s all normal for them.”

After completing training in Milwaukee, Juntunen is scheduled to have another session at a shopping mall in Houghton, Michigan, tentatively followed by another session in the atrium of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

This article originally appeared on the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

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