Mercer grads play key role in simulation project at Robins Air Force Base 

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Two men sit inside the cockpit of a C-5 plane, checking its many gauges as they fly the course. It feels like a real flight, but they’re actually safe on the ground at Robins Air Force Base (RAFB) 

The front end of a C-5 has been set up inside a building on base and wired to simulate outside elements, and Mercer alumni have played a key role in the project. The simulator is used to test software, so necessary adjustments can be made before the real planes go into the air.  

“From the very beginning of this project when it was just an idea, we had Mercer graduates making the plans, doing the engineering, doing the software … everything that was needed to build the cockpit itself,” said Todd Morris, who graduated from Mercer in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. 

Morris got involved in the project 15 years ago and leads the C-5 Systems Integration Lab (SIL) cockpit team. He was one of the first people to work on the plane and is among several Mercer graduates who had a hand in the project. 

The C-5 used for the simulator crashed in Dover, Delaware, in 2005. The pilots encountered an issue and had to turn the plane around shortly after takeoff, but they weren’t able to make it back to the runway. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, but the plane could never fly again. However, it was perfect for the simulator project and was able to be repaired for that purpose, Morris said. 

The simulator emits a steady hum of noise when it’s fired up, and fans are needed to keep all of the equipment cool while its running. A lot of technology is required to recreate elements of the plane that aren’t there and to generate information such as GPS data that the cockpit would need to see, said Johnmark Norris, electronics engineer on the project. 

The front end of the C-5 is filled with wiring and electronics, and the technology built to provide data to the cockpit is housed in an open room directly under the plane. In offices nearby, teams work on software before it’s installed in the simulator. 

The front end of a C-5 has been set up inside a building at Robins Air Force Base and wired to simulate outside elements.

(Photos and video by Rebekah Howard) The front end of a C-5 has been set up inside a building at Robins Air Force Base and wired to simulate outside elements.

Between Morris’ team and software and test teams, about 25 people work in the C-5 SIL, Morris said. Overall, eight teams are dedicated to the C-5 project, which is just one of the projects involving cargo and fighter aircraft that fall under the 578th Software Engineering Squadron.  

Prior to the SIL’s creation, C-5 manufacturer Lockheed Martin had to take operational planes into the air to test software. It cost over a half-million dollars to fly a real plane to run the tests, and the process often required several flights.  

The simulator allows these tests to be done at a fraction of the cost and frees up operational C-5s for other duties. It’s easier to integrate new technology before it’s on a real airplane, and it normally only takes one simulated flight to get the software as accurate as possible, Morris said. 

“We always tell people it’s like a check engine light for a car,” said Shep Ladson, who earned his biomedical engineering degree from Mercer in 2010 and his Master of Business Administration from Mercer in 2012. He is the project manager for the team that develops diagnostic software for the C-5. “We process all the signals, and it gives the flight engineers something to look at and tells them what’s going on big picture on the plane so that they can pass information to their team members and keep everything running smoothly. 

“Working in diagnostics, you get to be a part of solving problems. What we do here helps the people who are turning wrenches on the plane do their job better. The better we do our job, the quicker they can make their fixes and get the plane off the ground.” 

Many people don’t realize that the work being done on airplanes goes beyond fixing the wing, engine, tail or fuselage. Software and coding are required for the systems that run the planes, and that’s where talented engineers and computer scientists from Mercer are needed, said Allen London, Mercer’s senior associate vice president for the advancement and University liaison to Robins Air Force Base. 

“As long as there’s a C-5 in the Air Force, we’re going to be here to support it with updates as necessary,” Morris said. “There’s no other project like this within our software facility. Nobody else has an actual piece of hardware in here that’s so much like what’s actually flying in the plane to help our program office partners accomplish their mission.” 

Micah Anderson, a 2005 Mercer grad with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, has been on the C-5 project for nearly 15 years and is the project manager for one of the other software teams. His work mainly focuses on communications software and the analysis of onboard systems, as well as designing control circuits and firmware and testing equipment. 

Robins Air Force Base affords a lot of opportunities for engineers, especially those who are just beginning their careers. Mechanical, biomedical, electrical and computer engineers as well as computer scientists have been involved in the C-5 project, Anderson said. 

“The ability to mentor young engineers coming out of college and getting them acclimated to working in the Air Force and working in a technical environment like this is a good opportunity for all parties involved,” Anderson said. 

Tony Kirksey, left, and Brent Bitler, electronics engineers on the C-5 Systems Integration Lab cockpit test team, are shown inside the simulator at Robins Air Force Base. Bitler earned his masters degree in software engineering from Mercer in 2016, and Kirksey is a 2013 Georgia Tech graduate.

Tony Kirksey, left, and Brent Bitler, electronics engineers on the C-5 Systems Integration Lab cockpit test team, are shown inside the simulator at Robins Air Force Base. Bitler earned his masters degree in software engineering from Mercer in 2016, and Kirksey is a 2013 Georgia Tech graduate.

A long-standing partnership 

The C-5 simulator project is just one example of the long-standing ties between Mercer and Robins Air Force Base.  

Mercer’s School of Engineering was established in 1985 in response to the base’s request for a pipeline of engineering talent for the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex (WRALC), which has about 7,000 employees and is the base’s largest unit. The 402nd Software Engineering Group and 578th Software Engineering Squadron are part of the WRALC. Mercer has provided more entry-level engineers to Robins Air Force Base than any other school over the past 30 years. 

“It shows how many Mercer engineers we have at the base and the role they’re playing in enhancing that work that’s being done down there,” London said. 

In 2010, Mercer’s School of Business and Economics established a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree program specifically for engineering and technical management positions at the base. More than 100 MBA degrees have been awarded since then. 

“At the end of the day, our partnership exists by sending our students to the base and also getting Robins employees into degree and certificate programs that we offer,” London said. 

More recently, Mercer’s College of Professional Advancement began providing leadership training to the 78th Air Base Wing. So far, there have been four cohorts of around 30 students.  

In addition, the 116th Air Control Wing/JSTARS unit is now partnering with Mercer’s Computer Science department. Mercer professor Dr. Bob Allen currently is teaching a special topics course called Innovative Software Development where students come up with software ideas and recommendations to help this unit.  

On Oct. 14, the University and the base announced plans for another collaborative project. They will create an innovative software development center in downtown Macon, on the ground floor of The Lofts at Capricorn. The center will hire more than 50 people to develop software for the U.S. Air Force. Brigadier Gen. John Kubinec, commander for the WRLAC, said during the groundbreaking ceremony that this project will raise the level of awareness for software development for the Air Force and show college students the great work the base is doing and the opportunities available to them.

“What’s good for Robins Air Force Base is good for our nation, and it’s good for all of Middle Georgia. We want to be here close to the students at Mercer. If we can be closer and more integrated with the students, it’s better for everybody,” Gen. Kubinec said. “I want to spark innovation and partnership. I want to build that partnership to where it’s the model for how we do partnership in our nation.”

The Georgia Scholarship for Engineering Education (SEE) has led Mercer graduates to careers at the base, as well. Through this service cancelable loan, Mercer engineering students who are Georgia residents can receive $3,500 per year for up to five years of undergraduate study if they agree to work in Georgia after they graduate. The program aims to keep more engineers in Georgia, at places like RAFB and the Mercer Engineering Research Center in Warner Robins. 

Staying in state was really important to Ladson, and SEE helped him immensely. A college loan that doesn’t have to be paid is a “literal load off your back,” he said.  

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Andrea Honaker