B-52 CONECTs to the digital age
By Kimberly Woodruff, Staff Writer
/ Published July 14, 2016
TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The venerable B-52 Stratofortress, our nation's preeminent strategic bomber, is getting the first major upgrade to its communications system in many years, making it an even more lethal weapon system in the Air Force's arsenal.
OC-ALC's 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron is installing Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT), a communications modification that will equip the B-52 with 21st century situational awareness and mission flexibility.
"CONECT is the first major digital upgrade to the B-52 providing communication and situational awareness upgrades, as well as a digital architecture that will provide the foundation for future upgrades," said Alan Williams, deputy program element monitor at Air Force Global Strike Command. "We are moving from 1960s technology to the 21st Century."
Aircraft 61-0012, a 1961 Stratofortress, affectionately known as "LOKO" according to its nose art, went back to the warfighter June 25, complete with CONECT.
Coincidently, tail number "0012" is the 12th aircraft produced equipped with CONECT. Eventually, all B-52H aircraft will have the new system.
CONECT gives the B-52 a digital "backbone," enabling aircrew to receive digital tasking messages and real time intelligence and threat data from multiple sources.
All crew stations on the aircraft will be digitally linked, enabling information sharing while in flight, greatly improving situational awareness and mission flexibility.
"CONECT maintains a common operating picture between crew stations on the plane, so it is like installing a local area network line in your home. All the screens in the plane are wired to pick up the same channel," said Mr. Williams.
"Beyond line of sight communications is a game changer," said Mr. Williams.
Sending radio messages via satellite allows crews to maintain vital communications in transit and that ability ensures the safety of the crew onboard. When aircrew members flew B-52s in the late 1970s, missions were planned 24 hours prior to take off, and often lasted 16-17 hours. By the time the crew arrived at their destination, intel was nearly 40 hours old. With CONECT, crews maintain updated, current situational awareness throughout their mission.
Charles "Chuck" Alley, director of the 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, is responsible for producing B-52 CONECT jets as part of the Programmed Depot Maintenance. Originally, the modification was planned to be completed independently of PDM. Mr. Alley's team, in concert with the System Program Office, crafted a plan to complete CONECT in conjunction with PDM, adding the 7,000 hour CONECT mod to the existing 239 day PDM, ultimately reducing the time aircraft were out of the field for heavy maintenance.
"Our goal was to integrate the installation without adding more flow days to the PDM," said Mr. Alley. "Our challenge was to produce the 12th aircraft by the end of June so Global Strike Command has the number they need to meet Initial Operational Capability. The aircraft produced June 14, so the 565th delivered as promised." Spare parts, trained aircrew and maintainers and technical orders are other parts required for AFGSC to declare IOC.
Mr. Alley noted that the CONECT installation tasks are started on day six of PDM as the aircraft is being taken apart for its PDM look. It takes 12 days to strip components and prepare the structure to facilitate the new mod. The 565th AMXS utilized proven process improvement initiatives to maximize the concurrency of mod work with other required tasks.
"The modification itself and production of the 12th aircraft wasn't without challenges," said Mr. Alley. "Aircraft 60-0001 would have been the 12th aircraft produced, but 61-0001 had a cracked longeron and the repair parts were unsupportable at that time, so we removed the aircraft from the production machine awaiting parts. The next aircraft in the production machine flow was a non-CONECT aircraft. Ed Gadke, our squadron's master scheduler, was able to develop a plan to move aircraft 61-0012 ahead of another aircraft creating the opportunity for the 565th AMXS to produce CONECT No. 12 before the end of June. He worked in collaboration with Global Strike Command and the System Program Office to create a plan to fit it into the flow without interruption."
Connie Davis, deputy director for the 565th AMXS, said this is an enterprise approach in conjunction with the PDM line and transforms the way the squadron meets warfighter needs. "It takes everyone working together to overcome the challenges of training, new technology and new resources to support this new capability" she said.
"The triage team was incredible and now it is a standard practice to resolve modification installation issues with a triage team of enterprise experts."
"I am very proud our team is part of the B-52 CONECT program," said Col. Kenyon Bell, commander of the 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group. "This team of dedicated professionals has proven what a 'can do' attitude will achieve. We are bringing new technology to a Cold War era aircraft by innovating and improving processes to create capacity. This immense capability will support our ability to provide airpower for America and the defense of our great nation."
As more aircraft become equipped with CONECT, Brenden Shaw, B-52 Logistics Branch chief, Bomber Division, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said the primary focus will be to keep it sustainable by keeping kits available and at the quantities needed to keep it going.
Across the enterprise, CONECT brings together everyone from the maintenance team to supply chain management working together to maintain an unprecedented networking ability that will guarantee the B-52 aircraft's viability through its projected lifespan beyond 2040.