Reconstructing Tyndall

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine

Brig. Gen. Patrice A. Melancon discussed the challenges planning, funding and executing a base rebuild while still supporting daily mission requirements

In September, nearing the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael striking Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Airman sat down for an interview with Brig. Gen. Patrice A. Melancon, Tyndall Air Force Base Reconstruction Program Management Office executive director.

More than 60% of Tyndall AFB’s facilities were significantly damaged in the hurricane and, at the direction of the secretary of the Air Force, Melancon is leading a team to program and prepare to execute nearly $3 billion in funding to construct a digitally connected, 21st century Air Force base capable of supporting up to three squadrons of F-35 Lightning IIs and one squadron of MQ-9s.

Melancon discussed the challenges planning, funding and executing a base rebuild while still supporting daily mission requirements.

Airman: Take us back to one year ago; what were you doing before Hurricane Michael?

Gen. Melancon: Since January of 2016, I had been working for the San Antonio River Authority in San Antonio, Texas, as the engineering department manager. That is a busy job looking at flooding issues, water quality issues.

Airman: When did the Air Force reach out to you?

Gen. Melancon: I was approached in the middle of November timeframe and asked if I would consider taking this on. I really had to do some thinking about what my departure would mean to the River Authority. I really enjoyed the job. I had a great team and I knew if I took this on, it was going to be very intense, a really compressed schedule and I was going to be traveling a lot.

Ultimately, I felt like this is what I needed to be doing to support the Air Force. I mean, heck, it’s exciting. When does somebody almost get to start from scratch with a base in terms of designing and building it? It’s really an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime.

Airman: So, there was a lot of old infrastructure and a lot of a fragmenting of units across different buildings scattered around the base. Does the amount of damage allow for a complete restructuring of the base?

Gen. Melancon: There are just under 500 facilities, total, on the base. At the end of the day, probably 300 of them are going to get demoed. We’ll be replacing them with 100 to 125 facilities in the rebuild. So, we’re looking at consolidation and trying to reduce the overall footprint of the base.

The base was built in the forties. (As a base grows), typically, you get one or two MILCON projects every few years, so it ends up being a hodgepodge. But we went through a full master planning process and really looked at right-sizing and right-siting facilities.

We had some functions, for whatever reason, that are not necessarily inherently operational or flying related that were on the flightline side of the base. We’re moving those over to the support side of the base and really preserving the flightline space for inherently flying activities.

Airman: Could you run us through the prioritization of projects?

Gen. Melancon: Initially people thought 95% of the base was destroyed. Well, it was not really that bad. We did have a number of facilities that did effectively have minimal damage. So, we really looked at what buildings those were, where they were located and what were the functions in them.

Then as we went through the master planning process, we thought, okay, what do we want to do in terms of those facilities that we can preserve and repair? Do we keep them with the same operation and function or do we put a different function in there?

We’re bringing the F-35s here; three squadrons are what the secretary of the Air Force indicated and that is what we’re moving towards. The first aircraft is supposed to be here Oct. 1, 2023, so there are minimal facilities that we’ve got to have in place on the operational side.

We’ve got to have hangar maintenance facilities and squad-ops facilities. We’re going to ultimately have that times three, but we certainly don’t have to build all three of them at the same time. So, we have phased that in.

Then we do have to have some level of support facilities. You’ve got people that are coming here and typically you bring your family with you. So, we’ve got to be thinking about where are they going to be housed, child development centers, those sorts of things. We really had to think about what needed to be done and when, in terms of the funding.

Airman: In terms of funding, you just got a $1 billion supplemental funding bill passed by Congress, but that’s not all coming to Tyndall. It is being divvied up amongst a number of projects, correct?

Gen. Melancon: Correct. Of the (fiscal year 2019) supplemental, we’re going to get about $550 million for military construction. Some of that is going to be for planning and design.

Let me back up a little bit. We went through the master plan and decided what all needed to be done; as we went through and specifically developed line-item projects, we had about 40-ish projects. Initially the thought was we need to ask for all the funding all at the same time.

The thought was you’re going to get one bite at the apple.

So, we went all in, we coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, talked with their senior leadership, and asked, “Can you guys execute $3 billion worth of military construction?”

Not an easy task, but doable with some really focused effort. So, our initial approach was we’re going to get all the funding at once.

For me, that meant we were going to be doing 42 different projects at once; having 42 different projects with 42 different primes (contractors) happening in the same space.

And, oh, by the way, we’re going to still be flying.

That was a recipe for disaster.

Based on that, we worked with the Corps of Engineers and broke up the construction plan into 12 zones. They are geographically and functionally oriented. That way you got, in effect, 12 prime contractors.

In an ideal world, we’d have done one zone, let one contract be for the whole enchilada. But, there’s a lot of reasons that that’s maybe not the best approach.

Airman: What were some of those reasons?

Gen. Melancon: First of all, I’m not sure that you could find one prime that could effectively execute all of that.

Even though that prime (contractor) is going to have small businesses as subcontractors, we still have to really look at allowing those small businesses an opportunity to participate directly. Also, having one entity doing all that, there’s inherently some risk in placing all of your eggs in one basket.

So ultimately, we decided that looking at 12 different zones was reasonable and made sense. One of those zones is across the entire facility for the infrastructure backbone.

Airman: When you say the infrastructure backbone, what do you mean?

Gen. Melancon: Utilities, water, sewer, gas, electric; all the underground stuff that nobody pays attention to and just assumes that when you turn the faucet on water is going to come out; that when you flip a switch on, the lights are going to come on.

We have an interesting situation where our utilities were already privatized prior to the storm. The Air Force doesn’t actually own those physical assets anymore. Our Air Force Civil Engineer Center, Utilities Privatization Branch, works directly with the Defense Logistics Agency on the contractual agreement we have with those privatized system owners. So, we’re having to work very closely with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, as well as those system owners in discussions about energy resiliency. What does that look like for Tyndall?

We have already started discussions with the folks at AFWERX. They hosted a kind of a brainstorming session back at the end of June. One of those system owners participated in that session. We continue to partner with them in looking at what makes sense.

In addition, folks from IEE — Installations, Energy and Environment — were here looking at conducting an expedited mission-threat analysis that will then lead to an installation energy plan.

Typically, that is an 18-month to two-year process. Clearly, we don’t have that kind of time here. We’ve got to be able to understand fundamentally the path we’re going to go down in terms of what we’re going to do for energy resiliency. In the next six months we need to be making those kinds of decisions.

They were here a couple of weeks ago doing some initial data collection, interviewing mission owners and they’ll continue to do an expedited mission threat analysis that will help us to identify what those right solutions are for energy resiliency.

Airman: Considering the F-35 bed-down that’s scheduled to occur in the next few years, how do we make those kinds of facilities agile enough and ensure technological relevance for decades?

Gen. Melancon: I’ll go down a couple of different threads.

First of all, we’re looking to build in technology and techniques that are in the commercial space already. As you know, the military tends to be pretty conservative in its risk profile. We’re relatively risk averse.

We are looking again, through AFWERX, to try to partner with some of these smaller businesses. AFWERX has received support from senior levels in the Air Force to have their next challenge be the Base of the Future. This past year they did multi-domain operations.

But we’re looking to try to use technology that’s currently out there. Nowadays, when you buy an air conditioning system, it’s already got sensors built into it. As of now, we’re not really using any of that data.

We’re looking to be able to take a lot of our mechanical electrical equipment and start collecting and doing something with the data that’s already being produced.

We can be much more proactive in maintenance.  

For instance, you might have a motor on a chiller and that motor has got a certain vibrational frequency. There are sensors that can tell you, “Hey, that motor has got something going on with it,” and you can send a technician out there to look at it.

In some cases, that vibrational frequency change will indicate, “Hey, this is probably a bearing issue.” You can send a technician out there and do some maintenance so that you are reducing the cost of operating and maintaining that equipment, as well as extending the life of that particular asset.

In the past, we didn’t have access to that data and effectively you wouldn’t know something was wrong until you had almost a complete failure of the system. Then you had to replace the whole thing at a much higher cost.

We’re also looking at putting occupancy sensors into our facilities. Nowadays, you’ve got the light controlled to where when you walk in the room, the lights come on. When there’s no activity, the lights go off. But, there are sensors out there that will let you look at occupancy load, effectively artificial intelligence built into the system that will tell you that you’ve got a lot more people over in, let’s say, an auditorium. It will sense that and automatically adjust airflow for the heating and cooling of the facility.    

It’s all about building in energy and comfort efficiencies.

Airman: We were talking to (John W. Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy) about this. Hanger Five is kind of the poster child for this kind of thinking. Had we been able to do the recapitalization on that earlier maybe there would not have been as much damage to it and the aircraft inside.

Now that you’re going to be building new hangers, will they have sensors that are going to be able to tell you that it’s time to fix it, before there’s all this tangential damage done by a failure? Is that something that’s on the horizon?

Gen. Melancon: That kind of technology, we’re looking to build into all of our facilities. Not just our administrative facilities.

You mentioned the hangar space, the F-35 has the ALIS, autonomic logistics information system. That system allows the plane to effectively talk to the crew on the ground to say, “Hey by the way, when I land, I’m going to need you to check out the hydraulics for the landing gear.” It’ll send a signal back before it even lands and that technician can be prepared to address that right away.

One of the things that maybe is not going to be immediate after the rebuild, but some places are already using, is autonomous vehicles.

Gen. Melancon: I foresee having a technician on the flightline with an iPad or a tablet and that aircraft has sent back a signal, “Hey, I’ve got this issue,” and the technician hits a couple of buttons and that sends a signal to the warehouse and, kind of like Amazon, with their little robots that can bring parts to a spot, and then you stick it on a drone or you stick it on an autonomous vehicle and it goes out and it meets the technician at the flight line. So (we’re) really looking at what might be possible in the future.

Airman: That same predictive maintenance for the aircraft, you can have that for the facilities?

Gen. Melancon: Absolutely. If there is a pressure drop, let’s say in a water line at a particular spot, it will automatically send a signal to the computer system that will pop up on somebody’s desk to say, “Hey, there’s a drop in pressure in the water line between building A and building B,” and that will either send a signal to somebody’s cell phone in the form of a text message or it’ll automatically generate a work order and that can then be farmed out to the right person.

And so this is the thing that we kind of battle with the traditional acquisition system; justifying and getting people to understand that if we quickly institute a certain allotment on the front end, a certain capital expense is going to save us in potential damage and cost later.

It’s going to pay dividends in terms of having the data that allows you to proactively address either recurring maintenance problems or some repair issues.

Right now, for instance with your car, you’re supposed to change the oil every 5,000 miles or every six months. But different vehicles probably have different wear and tear. Different driving patterns have different wear and tear. This would allow the ability to do maintenance when it’s needed, not just because it’s at the six-month point. So really it allows us to better spend our money at the right time on the right things.

Airman: If you were on the Hill testifying is that how you would try and explain it?

Gen. Melancon: Exactly. It allows us to really spend the dollars at the right time in the most cost-effective manner. If we can do that low-cost, predictive maintenance at the right time, that reduces the overall cost in terms of life cycle and also will ultimately extend the life of our assets. It’ll let us have them usable for a long time.

Airman: Let’s shift gears a little bit here. What is the purpose of hosting Industry Days?

Gen. Melancon: Our Industry Days have been largely about letting us do some market research. It also is about partnering with not only industry, but also the community.

After our first industry day, which was at the end of January, we did issue a call for white papers on a variety of topics from technology to program management to climate resiliency. We kept it fairly open-ended.

We got about a hundred papers and had about 132 different topics. About half of those we are already actively implementing or looking to implement. About 20% of them were really not good fits for a variety of reasons. And then about 30% of them were doing a little bit more analysis to look at the risk/benefit.

The Industry Day in September 2019 is focused on construction logistics. We’re having to do billions of dollars of construction. But downtown is also in the midst of having to rebuild and trying to find 3,000 craft workers to swing hammers.

Once you find them, how do you house them and feed them? How do you get them from where they’re living onto the base? How do you find enough construction material?

Those are all things that we really want to partner not only with the community, but also with the industry.

Is there a way that we can use the rail system or the port? Can we use our waterways to transport materials to job sites?

We’re going to talk about the 12 construction zones with the funding that we received. We’re not going to be doing all 12 at one time, which is, in a way, a blessing. That’s a little bit less complexity and congestion, but it’s still a lot of construction happening at the same time.

Airman: Does that also allow you to gather a little data along the way and determine best practices?

Gen. Melancon: Correct. We will be able to, as we go, apply some lessons learned. This is largely unchartered territory. I think the last new base construction was back in the 80’s when they built Schriever (AFB), in the Colorado Springs area.

Airman: On acquisition side, is this an opportunity to start exploring some alternative acquisition avenues?

Gen. Melancon: Certainly. That’s where AFWERX has come into play. I do have approval from senior leadership to use Tyndall as something of a development or prototype platform.

Again, as we work with AFWERX — and I’ll talk specifically to the facility-related control structure — electricity, lighting and HVAC, there are some tests that have already gone on in terms of how you collect some of that data. Clearly cybersecurity is a concern that everybody has with all of this.

We don’t have that network riding on the base Air Force network. We have it separated for cybersecurity purposes.

We’re going to look to deploy that on the civil engineering facility related control systems.

Frankly, it’s opportunistic in that it is at Tyndall that we’re doing all of this. The Air Forces’ civil engineering subject matter experts reside here at Tyndall with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. They will be right here on the ground and able to do some hands on with that.

Airman: So, assuming that that further budgets are predictable, what’s the timeline to complete all 12 zones?

Gen. Melancon: Right now, we’ve got to be ready to accept that first aircraft (F-35) on Oct. 1, 2023. That’s going to be that initial squad-ops and maintenance and hanger space that we’ve got to have ready. That ALIS, the autonomic logistics information system, has a 10-month lead time. So back up 10 months from that date to have that prepped. That’s the real line in the sand that we’re working towards right now.

We’re still trying to get a fully-integrated master schedule that looks at everything from environmental impact statements to the design and then the construction and commissioning. My guesstimate, right now, is that it’s going to be seven years. Some folks have said 10. Maybe I’m being a little bit optimistic, but I think it’s going to be about seven years. But that October 2023 deadline; we’ve got to meet that.

Airman: Tyndall was built in the 1940s. Offutt AFB started as a cavalry outpost in the 1800s. There are a lot of bases and a lot of facilities across the Air Force that are in dire need of upgrades, recapitalization and advancement to new technologies. Do you see Tyndall as being a test bed for technologies and practices that can be replicated across the force?

Gen. Melancon: Absolutely. I’ll mention quickly, in January of this year, the secretary and the chief signed off the installation investment strategy, the I2S, as we call it. That talks about more long-term O and M (operational and maintenance); facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization funding, to have some minimum viable funding to keep our installations running appropriately.

The technology that I spoke of earlier, with being able to do predictive maintenance, I think it’s going to help make those minimum viable dollars stretch further.

Our intent is to build a 21st-century, digitally-integrated installation; one that can be a model for other bases as they move forward.

Clearly, I’m not praying for other bases to get wholesale whacked as Hurricane Michael did here at Tyndall. But, certainly, as bases look at recapitalization, as they look at new construction, we hope that they will look to Tyndall; that they will look at what we’ve done here and follow suit.

Airman: Does the DevOps perspective on risk — is it better to try new things and make your mistakes at the beginning — apply to this project?

Gen. Melancon: Clearly as we move forward and start to implementing some of these ideas, it’s not going to be perfect. I mean, I think we’d be remiss if we were that optimistic that we’re not going to have some hiccups or some missteps.

But, certainly, this will allow us to do some prototyping to see what works and to see what doesn’t (and assess) why didn’t it work and what do we need to do to make it work.

Airman: And have the ability to iterate as you go?

Gen. Melancon: The communications folks are a big partner for us. Air Combat Command already has put in place some activities that will allow us to do some initial remediation to get the communications infrastructure up and running. Then there’s going to be a modernization effort also.

They’re working with my team to make sure that we build in the requirements that we need to be able to do all of this kind of big data collection, big data analytics that is going to support the F-35 in the ALIS system. We’re teaming with them to make sure that we’ve got the requirements right.

Airman: For them to reach out and grab a reservist to come in and run this show, it’s really kind of a testament to the whole total force concept.

Gen. Melancon: It really is total force. When we think about how manning has evolved over the last number of years and there’ve been so many manning cuts and an effort to, and I think rightly so, centralize activities.

But, while there’s a lot that’s happening from San Antonio, from the Civil Engineer Center there, you’ve got to have somebody with boots on the ground for day-to-day operations.

With the cuts in manpower and that centralization, the base-level folks just really don’t have the bandwidth anymore to take on even a traditional MILCON program; and this certainly is anything but traditional. This is very far outside what’s normal for a base.

Airman: Can you tell us about the relationship you have with the wing commander and how that works?

Gen. Melancon: Col. Brian Laidlaw ( 325th Fighter Wing commander ) and I have a great relationship.

He has had a great relationship with our O6s, initially Col. Pat Miller came followed by Col. Scott Matthews; they were both active-duty folks. Then we rolled in a reservist as Col. Brent Haydn was here for about four months, and currently Col. Lori Walden is here. She’ll be leaving at the end of the month and we do have a full-time active-duty O6 who just PCS’d in — Col. Travis Layton.

We have had, and will continue to have, a very close relationship with the wing commander. Clearly this is his installation.

My attitude has always been that, yes, I am here and I am responsible for the rebuild, but I am working for him. I’m working to help him get the base back up and running. I’m here to enable that to happen.

It really is a hand-in-hand kind of situation, where I try to keep him as up to speed as I can. The (Program Management Office) director, who is a colonel, and Colonel Laidlaw and I are talking almost daily. Every time that I’m here at Tyndall, I’m reaching out to Col. Laidlaw to just make sure that we sync up and that we know what the other one is doing so that we can help each other out.

Airman: It really is a balancing act between making sure that the current mission is supported and also looking forward to supporting what this base may be in 20 years.

Gen. Melancon: Col. Laidlaw’s priority really is the current mission. My priority really is the future, but we absolutely have got to be sure that we don’t end up getting crosswise with each other as we move forward.

Airman: We’ve seen that with the hangar housing the low observable paint shop. It’s a hanger that is eventually going to be demoed and replaced. But you got to make it work now.

Gen. Melancon: Correct. We talked about that initial assessment; green — it’s got some minimal repairs, yellow — it’s a little bit iffy, red — it’s a pile of rubble.

But some of those yellow facilities, we had to go in and put on some temporary roofs. Those roofs are really of a three to five-year duration. In order to get the mission done, we have had to take some expedient measures.

There were just under 50 buildings that had relatively minor damage, but were critical to some mission operations. We did spend the money to do permanent repairs on them and those will be around for the duration, but we were very specific about on which facilities.        

Airman: What about the Airmen and their families? Let’s talk about how possibly things may be restructured to make this a more Airman friendly and efficient base.

Gen. Melancon: In terms of administrative tasks that the Airmen might have to do, we’re really looking, at multipurpose facilities for the administrative functions. We’re hoping to kind of allow for one-stop shopping for the Airmen so that they can, maybe on a lunch break or at the end of the day, go quickly take care of a number of things in one spot.

In addition, there have already been discussions with the community to put a branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles that will be housed in one of our administrative buildings and, I believe, also a county tax assessor office. If they’ve got to go take care of something like that, there’s the ability to do it on base instead of having to drive 30 minutes into town and 30 minutes back.

Airman: Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy John Henderson has told us you are looking to make it more walkable.

Gen. Melancon: Right. On the support side of the base, near where the current fitness and the dining facility are, those actually both survived quite well, there are a couple of the dorms that also survived quite well.

I believe three of the 11 dorms were effectively unscathed. We’re looking to really focus at that location, to allow Airmen to get up, walk from their dorm to the fitness center, get their workout in, go back and get cleaned up, walk to the dining facility and then walk or bike over to their workspace.

I’m going to give a shout out to the Florida Department of Transportation. They are already — in fact, I think next month — they’re going to break ground on a renovation project for Highway 98, which now divides the base north and south. It’s a $20 million dollar project. As I understand it, they’re going to be elevating that so that we will be able to join the north and south sides of the base at a couple of spots. That is going to allow Airmen to walk or bike directly over to the flightline side.

Airman: Will Tyndall be central to Base of the Future Pitch Days?

Gen. Melancon: Absolutely. That rolls in with AFWERX, which has gotten approval for Base of the Future as the topic for the next Challenge Day and those next Pitch Days.

If memory serves me right, I believe that they are looking to do a Pitch Day early next year and it’s going to be Installation of the Future.

We are really trying to utilize the SBIR program to get those smaller, non-traditional, but very technologically advanced, outside-of-the-box thinking companies interested in doing something with the military and with the Air Force. Our intent is to welcome as many of those ideas that makes sense for us.

Airman: That certainly helps with your timeline too.

Gen. Melancon: Right. It’s interesting, over time our contracting processes have gotten more and more cumbersome, but I do know that the senior leadership and contracting is looking to be as agile as we can be in that regard.

In fact, we have an active-duty contracting officer that’s here for the next four months, working with us to get very familiar with the program and what’s happening. She will get trained as an agreements officer, so that if we do have an opportunity to use another transactional authority, one of those alternate procurement methods, she will be prepared and will be familiar with Tyndall and with the program and facilitate those kinds of procurement activities.

 Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics is definitely on board with this. So, we’ve got support at the highest levels. Now we need to get those folks that are kind of at the action level to be comfortable, because, frankly, as I mentioned earlier, we tend to be a very risk averse population.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, but we need to learn how to get comfortable with pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box. Because this is not your typical military construction project. This is not your typical day-to-day maintenance of a base.

We’ve really got to think fundamentally differently about our approach and really be willing to take on some risk. We don’t need to be reckless and I don’t want us to be reckless, but we’ve got to think a little bit differently about this.

Airman: It is an amazing opportunity.

Gen. Melancon: Absolutely. I’m really excited. You know, one of the things that I thought about when I was initially asked to take this on, was who else gets to do this? I was honored and humbled that my peers in the engineering community in the Air Force were confident enough in my abilities that they asked me to do this. It really is an amazing opportunity and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I was thrilled to be able to say yes.