Team Dover selected as AMC Aerial Port of the Future test bed

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- In February approximately 25 scientists and researchers from Air Mobility Command, Air Force, Army, Navy and Department of Defense research labs visited the 436th Aerial Port Squadron to kick off a new initiative: The Aerial Port of the Future.

The team visited a total of three port operation facilities around the country in an effort to learn current operational requirements and processes while identifying the impacts such improvements could have on AMC’s rapid global mobility and the DOD as a whole.

Now, the initiative is entering its next stage. Dover's port was selected May 19 as the installation to test new technology, processes and concepts.  Dover is home of the DOD’s largest aerial port, was selected yet again, this time as a test bed to bring AMC port operations into the future.

To Jim Ewing, 436th APS operations manager, Aerial Port of the Future is exciting, but the drive for constant improvement is not a new concept.

“We’ve been constantly improving our practices and procedures at the port,” Ewing said. “I remember how things were here before [Operations] Desert Storm and Desert Shield. We had pallets all over the base. Pretty much every parking lot had them. It wasn’t very organized. We ended up sending a lot of light and small pallets on planes that weren’t loaded to the max. As soon as freight came in, we tried to send it out. That caused a lot of extra work, both here and at the destination.”

After the Gulf War cargo operations surge died down, a lot of conversations started about improving port operations, elaborated Mike Williams, 436th APS air freight operations manager. The biggest takeaway was the concept of precision loading.

Precision loading developed into a set of goals for pallet construction, maximizing size and weight while minimizing the time cargo sat idle at the port, Williams explained. Dover AFB was selected to test this concept as well, and within the first year, saved the Air Force $76 million. Almost immediately, every other port was operating under this standard.

“Precision loading was immediately effective,” Williams said. “It came out of communication and a desire to improve. That’s an important mindset to hold onto, and I think that’s one reason the port continues to step into the future.”

The squadron continued to improve on the concept for the next 20 years, adopting new technology that allowed the squadron to track cargo and plan builds before freight even arrived at the port. Other technologies like a mechanized material handling system, the largest of three such units in the world, revolutionized the way cargo was moved and stored.

When Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom brought another year of surge operations similar in demands to the Gulf War, Team Dover’s Super Port demonstrated the efficiency and skill gleaned from 20 years of improvement.

“We moved nearly the same amount of cargo during the surge for each, but we did it much more efficiently during OEF/OIF,” Williams said. “Aside from all the planes taking off, it didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary. We didn’t have pallets piled all over the base. Over 20 years, we had really streamlined and centralized port operations so we didn’t detract from the rest of the wing’s mission.”

With their focus constantly set on the future, the unit is excited to try new technologies, such as personnel exoskeletons, specialized backup camera systems for ladder trucks and any other concepts or technologies that come from the Aerial Port of the Future program, Ewing said.

“We’re just scratching the surface of what the Aerial Port of the Future could look like,” Ewing concluded. “We’re all excited about the prospects. In command’s eyes, this is in the young Airmen’s hands. They’re the ones with the ideas and ingenuity that can make this program succeed, but we need to come alongside and encourage them. It’s on us to explain the issues with ideas rather than simply shooting them down. If we can encourage idea sharing and provide a solid, metered test of these ideas, I’m sure we’ll see some amazing things in the aerial port community.”