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Barksdale Airman’s invention saves backs, fingers, money and time

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle

In 2020, Senior Master Sgt. John Donelson was very worried.

The 307th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron avionics flight superintendent had been watching Airmen struggle to load cumbersome pylons to the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. They were using two large maintenance stands, their backs and any other body part necessary to get the piece in place.

The pylons serve as attachment points for various munitions and the LITENING Advanced Targeting Pod, a vital long-range targeting and surveillance system used extensively on the B-52.

“We load about three pylons per month, but their center of gravity makes them difficult to manage,” said Donelson. “There was a real chance of dropping the pylon, which can be a pretty expensive thing to replace.”

Donelson also worried about the Airman smashing fingers and hurting their backs during the loading process.

He knew there had to be a better way.

So he called on Master Sgt. John Slaughter, the 307th Maintenance Group quality assurance chief inspector, to create something to make the work safer and more efficient.

“Master Sgt. Slaughter is one of those people who can figure out anything,” said Donelson. “He has created some brilliant things in the past for us, so he was my natural go-to person.”

Slaughter’s first inclination was to eliminate the use of maintenance stands. Instead, he opted to create a modification that could be used on a Munitions Handling Unit-83 aerial lift truck.

The MHU 83 is used to lift heavy munitions on the B-52 safely and efficiently, but at the time, it had no handling system to hold pylons.

Slaughter used his background as a tool and die maker to conceptualize and design the Pylon Loading Fixture (PLF), the name he gave to the MHU-83 modification.

“The challenge I took on was to design it for ease of manufacturing and to reduce costs,” said Slaughter. “I wanted it to be something that the Air Force as a whole could build.”

That mindset allowed Slaughter to simplify the design so parts could be cut in-house, using machinery in the 307th Bomb Wing’s metals technology shop.

Slaughter’s first design was field tested in August 2021, approximately four months after Donelson reached out to him.

Since then, the PLF has continually been refined and re-tested to ensure the most efficient and safe model possible.

“We are in a pretty good place right now, and I can’t predict if it will need any more improvements, but if I see something that irks me, I’ll get it fixed,” said Slaughter. 

He said the current model can easily be removed from one MHU-83 to another, reducing costs even further by eliminating the need for multiple units within a shop.

For Donelson, Slaughter’s efforts go well beyond cost savings.

“Most importantly, our personnel are safer because there’s no risk of a pylon falling,” he said. “Also, we can do the same job with three people instead of four,” said Donelson.

With the current model in place, Slaughter has created a package other units can use to design, build and train on the PLF. That has garnered attention outside the 307th Bomb Wing.

Slaughter said he has been in conversations with an active-duty unit and Air Force Global Strike Command officials about getting access to the PLF design and training package.

In addition to the interest at Barksdale, Donelson has fielded inquiries from other units at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and units at other bases that need to place pylons on high-wing aircraft.

“There are some C-130 units in the same boat we were in, and they’ve expressed a lot of interest in the modification,” he said.

And even though designing new equipment falls outside Slaughter’s QA job description, he couldn’t be happier that Donelson reached out to him.

“I just enjoy helping out and being productive,” said Slaughter. “There’s almost no moment in the day when I’m not thinking or working on some type of project.”

That attitude has not only eased the minds of Airmen like Donelson but saved time, money, backs and fingers along the way.

(Daigle is assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing public affairs office.)