Engineering Future Leaders

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

The reconstruction of Tyndall Air Force Base after the near-total devastation caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018, has created an opportunity to test and acquire innovative technologies that have potential to be used at other facilities across the force. While the Tyndall AFB Hurricane Michael Recovery Program Management Office is using sensors, robots and digital interfaces to create an Installation of the Future, another innovation of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center may be a step in creating the Civil Engineering Force of the Future.

Five second lieutenants are getting a unique opportunity to work side-by-side with experienced civil engineers very early in their careers through the Tyndall Hands program. In this prototype program, the young officers not only research, test and evaluate cutting-edge technologies to possibly be incorporated in the Tyndall rebuild, but also manage some of the more than 40 construction projects spread across 12 construction zones.

“Tyndall Hands was envisioned [in 2020] by Maj. Gen. John Allen when he was the Air Force Civil Engineer,” said Col. Travis Leighton, director of Tyndall AFB PMO, AFCEC.

“The intent is to bring new civil engineering second lieutenants to this rebuild for the specific purpose of giving young folks an opportunity to participate in what is a massive amount of construction early on in their career. This is an opportunity that civil engineers don’t get every day and to be able to build that capability from the start and create what is truly the most unique first assignment. They’ll be working with the Army Corps of Engineers, interacting with generals and elected leaders and they’ll be managing billions of dollars of construction.”

The prototype program offers a chance to embed with the engineers and experts in logistics, budgeting, finance and construction management within the Tyndall PMO under real-world conditions. This early experience for young officers could eventually benefit the enterprise as a whole. “This kind of effort has never been seen before. Not just the Air Force, but the Department of Defense, has not seen this much of a reconstruction effort,” said 2nd Lt. Eric Jochmans.

“So, getting this many young eyes, with us just starting our careers, being able to see this happen is amazing. We probably wouldn't be able to see anything like this even eight or nine years down the line. So, getting all this effort on the right eyes, young eyes, will pay dividends down the line.”

Another key component in the Tyndall Hands program is a deployment that will further expose the young officers to the challenges of working with a partner nation on a large construction effort not on U.S. soil.

“The other part of the Tyndall Hands is once we get these lieutenants fully mission capable at the Tyndall PMO, we're going to deploy them to Al Udeid Air Base, [Qatar],” Leighton said. “They're going to support the base of the future and the buildup of a base overseas as a deployment during their first assignment. Our goal is to grow these folks into an expanded and future capability for the Air Force.”

At Tyndall AFB, that future is coming on fast.

The very nature of the Tyndall rebuild, with its agile acquisition methods, partnerships with commercial companies and emerging technologies, offers the lieutenants the unique experience of not just using legacy methods and vendors, but having to venture forth to explore the marketplace, evaluate what is available and acquire it under a tight deadline.

This includes building a reconfigured “smart” flightline to directly support the arrival of F-35 squadrons of the 325th Fighter Wing.

The AFCEC’s Natural Disaster Recovery Division, part of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center enterprise, is leading the rebuild, partnering with USACE to support the 325th FW and its F-35 Program Integration Office.

 “The rebuild gives us the unique opportunity to reimagine how we accommodate the needs of the F-35,” Leighton said. “We’re leveraging cutting-edge technology to increase cybersecurity and perimeter defense, enhance base safety and equip Airmen to execute the missions of today and tomorrow.”

This reimagining is something the Tyndall Hands might never experience in the entirety of their careers. The Tyndall PMO’s partnership with AFWERX during their Open Topics challenges has allowed the young officers to be involved in pitches by technology companies to address Air Force needs and then participate in the evaluation of those pitches and the awarding of contracts.

In other areas of the rebuild, they are not just witnessing it. They are not just experiencing it. They are helping lead it.

I think it's like an innovation spin on leadership,” 2nd Lt. Colleen Kuykendal, Innovation Branch co-lead, said. “It's not so much about leading the masses like at a squadron as it is being given a problem that has never been solved before. You're the person on that forefront that gets to come up with those ideas and, with your leadership, help make those things come to fruition.”

That leadership experience for the Tyndall Hands is also spread around more than 40 new military construction projects.

“They let us rotate through different teams that we work with. And within those teams, you have the ability to step up and lead and take initiative on projects and make those projects your own. So, I do think it's a good opportunity to lead in that sense,” Jochmans said.

The Tyndall Hands believe the leadership lessons learned at Tyndall AFB will carry on as they gain in experience and rank.

“I think there's a shift right now, Air Force wide,” said 2nd Lt. Nicholas Cap, PMO construction logistics officer. “We need to be doing stuff better. I mean, that's kind of the whole point of the rebuild here. It wasn't just designed in a vacuum. A lot of the spaces were designed with Airman input. I think that's becoming a trend in general, which is the right trend. We need to have the user's input into these different technologies and different facilities. I think whenever I move on, if someone has a good idea, I'll say, ‘that's great.’

“I think we've gotten really good at having a communication with people and explaining the value proposition and why this is a good idea. Not just ‘I have a good idea’. So, I think we'll definitely take that moving forward; giving the people that we lead that ability to voice that up the chain, which will be very helpful to getting a lot of these ideas moving as they arise.”

Cap’s assessment is echoed by his boss, Leighton.

“For the Air Force, people are our most valued resource. This opportunity for these five lieutenants is an investment in CE field and builds capability for the Air Force going forward,” Leighton said.