Courtesy of Knob Nobster Public School District
Innovate…Partner…Reduce Costs…Move Fast…Solve Problems! These were the directives handed down earlier this year to Brigadier General John Nichols, Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, and his counterpart commanders across all Air Force Global Strike Command installations. So when a critical issue arose with the flagship of the Air Force, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, Nichols did not place the standard call for service within the Air Force or even to any of its affiliate service providers. Instead, he followed the directive and placed a call to some unlikely heroes…a team of teenage high school students who are members of FIRST Robotics Team 6424, the Stealth Panther Robotics (SPR) of Knob Noster High School.
Founded in 2016 through grant support from Department of Defense Education Activities, Northrop Grumman, and a host of local supporters, SPR immediately found itself in the national spotlight. Earning the Rookie All Star Award in year one, and battling to the FIRST Robotics World Championship playoffs in year two, SPR quickly emerged as a top-tier performer in what is arguably the most intense, high tech, K-12 STEM competition in the world. That reputation and proven record of performance prompted the call to action from General Nichols to see just how well the team of students could apply their skills to address a very technical and high-profile, real world, critical situation.
In late October 2018, a B-2 training mission was diverted and forced to land as a result of an in-flight emergency. Although the situation was successfully mitigated by the highly-skilled pilots who train and prepare for these types of unexpected emergencies, the situation demanded an immediate and permanent solution. Investigation of the issue revealed that over the history of the B-2 program, a set of switches inside the cockpit have been inadvertently moved on several occasions causing an Airframe Mounted Accessory Drive (generator & hydraulics) to decouple from its associated engine inflight.
Within 72 hours of being commissioned by General Nichols, the SPR Team perfected and delivered an eighth-edition, 3D-printed prototype AMAD switch cover to be used in the B-2 cockpit to mitigate the issue. During the intense 72 hour design and production period, students interacted with Whiteman Air Force Base leadership, B-2 pilots, mechanical engineers, and their head coach Chris Adams (a retired Navy nuclear engineer) to design and produce the prototype solution switch cover. The students were also able to form, fit, and function test the switch cover in the B-2 training simulators with critique and feedback from over a dozen pilots. Adams shared, “FIRST Robotics truly came to life for our students through this remarkable opportunity and partnership. This project demanded STEM thinking, critical problem solving, production and manufacturing, testing, and quality assurance, all of which occurred in a very condensed and expedited timeline. This is exactly what FIRST Robotics prepares our students to do…and do well! The Stealth Panthers could not feel more honored or fulfilled by providing this operational solution for our namesake, the Stealth Bomber, a $60 billion asset of the United States Air Force.”
At present, SPR has printed over 30 AMAD switch covers which are now operational in all B-2 Bombers as well as the B-2 training simulators.
Brigadier General John Nichols shared, “I am very proud of our partnership with the STEM students of Knob Noster High School and believe this project is a decent example of innovation, partnering, and going fast….all at a cost of $1.25 per unit.”
The Stealth Panthers remain on immediate standby for their next partnership or mission with Whiteman Air Force Base.