Dispatch: Transforming RCAF Operations

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Magazine Article / March 1, 2020

By Captain Andrew Sheahan, Projects Officer, 8 Operations Support Squadron, 8 Wing, Trenton, Ontario 

Captain Andrew Sheahan is a projects officer at 8 Wing and a key contributor to the Dispatch project. He worked closely with Captain Amanda Whalen during the “go to market” campaign, trialing the new software with 8 Wing’s squadrons. In this article for PERSpectives, he describes Dispatch’s path to modernizing the RCAF’s air mobility operations.

A team of software professionals at the RCAF’s Aerospace Warfare Centre, working in a lab known as “The Flight Deck,” has delivered a new application to transform and streamline the air mobility logistics support system. Dispatch, as the name suggests, is a platform for dispatchers at home to offer a modern support process to RCAF aircrew around the world. It leverages new software tools to provide better mission planning to aircrew, and allows dispatchers to offer more responsive and agile support when the mission changes at the last minute – a fact of life in RCAF operations.

“My intent was to have aircrew focused on flying their aircraft, not being distracted by potential customs issues when they land in austere locations,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Snyder, Commanding Officer 8 Operations Support Squadron (8 OSS). “Building our own support software is one opportunity to show aircrew that we are listening, and we want them to have the best possible support from the team at home – and when they get home, we want them focused on spending quality time with their families rather than on paperwork.”

The speed and reach of RCAF’s air mobility have grown tremendously over the last 60 years, enabling the delivery of more precise and powerful Air Power than ever before. What has changed more slowly, though, has been the support framework. Wherever aircrew have travelled, they’ve brought a bundle of administrative paperwork in tow, known affectionately as the “Football.” This has grown over the years to include information about handling, fueling, customs, accommodation, diplomatic clearances and more. Often, this package exceeds 150 pages, and is a burden on the aircrew to sort through, confirm, and carry around the world. Even more challenging has been the process to update aircrew when mission locations and dates have changed. Often this results in an entirely new “football” that must be painstakingly relayed, piece by piece, to an aircraft commander already overtasked in a remote location – often by phone or email. “Before the advent of this new software, it was extremely time consuming to copy down all of the amendments by hand, or sift through dozens of emails for the correct information,” said Major Jeff Edwards, a CC-130H pilot. “It really is a tremendous step forward.” 

"The shortcomings of the previous system had nothing to do with the motivation or expertise of 8 OSS staff or aircrew.  It had to do with the lack of ability to turn that expertise and willingness to improve operations into a digital solution,” said technical lead Chris Young. “The Flight Deck closed this gap with agile development and an effective feedback process."

And so, in a radical departure from traditional procurement, the software team decided to simply build a solution from scratch. "After meeting with many individuals from 8 OSS and a number of squadrons, it was clear that there was no shortage of great ideas,” said Young. “What was missing was a capability that could transform those great ideas into a digital solution that could be delivered in very short order and evolve as usage increased."

With that in mind, the team followed a well-established, battle-tested framework known as Agile Development. In use by industry for decades, and more recently at the United States Air Force’s Kessel Run team and associated Department of Defense software labs, this was a first for the RCAF.

"The challenge wasn't what was needed to be built.  Between 8 OSS and aircrew the solution was very clear.  The challenge was to effectively translate the needs of each party into software, in a fast, iterative way using modern technology,” said Young.

Within two months of the initial consultation, through the Agile Development cycle, the team at 8 OSS was trialing a cloud-based web application. Captain Amanda Whalen, at the time the Dispatch Officer responsible for supporting air mobility operations in Trenton, oversaw the transition from legacy software and paperwork to modern, digital processes. During the rapid, iterative development of the software, she acted as the primary liaison between her staff and the software team to identify challenges as well as opportunities for efficiency. She was crucial in the “go to market” strategy, rolling out the application to the squadrons and end users, managing their feedback, and helping the software team translate user problems into software solutions.

For dispatchers, the application helps organize a huge amount of information in a format that is easily understandable. For aircrew, this means a streamlined product. When things change, the data is easily modified, and affected parties are quickly notified.

While dispatchers are no doubt benefiting from the new product, the biggest results have been seen in aircrew.  “The amount of time I’m getting back is significant. What used to take hours – [to] go through all the confirmations – now takes minutes,” said Captain Alex Metson, a pilot with 437 Squadron at 8 Wing. “What’s great is that it’s all centralized, available after hours, and easily updated when we travel – I’m not calling home to Trenton at 2 a.m. and copying information by hand.” 

The application also promises some significant financial benefits.  With the decrease in the requirement to manage the old administrative paperwork,  8 OSS has been able to reduce its full-time employment positions by about 70 percent, reassigning several skilled operators from clerical duties to more relevant work, such as the tactical data link cell.

8 OSS continues to work with the software team, with the aim of achieving an estimated $4-6 million in AvPol savings per year. This can be achieved through identifying optimal fuel tankering situations and, using the application, making recommendations to aircraft commanders. (Fuel tankering is the practice of having aircraft carry low cost fuel from inexpensive airports to isolated and austere locations with more expensive fuel, reducing purchases required on the other end.)

What Dispatch has delivered is a new way of doing business. More importantly, it’s proven that the RCAF can respond to the needs of aircrew in a timely manner using cutting edge tools. As a one-stop-shop, aircrew can ensure that during and leading up to a mission all relevant considerations have been addressed. If there are any concerns, a pilot can reach out to the specific dispatcher on their file, and work to figure out a solution.

“It’s nice to see software that supports our operations in an intuitive manner,” said Captain Scott Nantes, a C-90B King Air pilot at 8 OSS. “I like that it looks like the software I’m using at home. When you have beautiful apps like Instagram at home, and then have to battle old software at work, that’s painful. Dispatch is a step in the right direction, and it’s noticeably improving our quality of life at home and on the road.”
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