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Airmen innovation helps optimize cargo loading with simple technology

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Robert Marshall
  • Air Force Operational Energy

In partnership with Air Mobility Command, Air Force Research Laboratory, and Air Force Operational Energy, Airmen are conducting operational testing on prototypes of the Vertical Pallet Stacker for multiple mobility aircraft to enable more optimized and effective cargo-loading and transport per pound of fuel used.

Originally developed by the now-defunct Air Expeditionary Force Battlelab at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and currently managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Vertical Pallet Stacker (previously known as the Bi-Level Airlift Loading System) significantly increases the amount of cargo a mobility aircraft can move at one time.

Designed and certified for C-17 Globemaster III, C-5 Galaxy, and C-130 Hercules use, the VPS is an aluminum frame that provides a second level of storage on top of a standard cargo pallet, enabling up to 3,000 pounds of cargo per pallet space to be placed on the top pallet.

This allows Airmen to take advantage of the often underutilized vertical space in an aircraft’s cargo bay, increasing cargo capacity and decreasing required transport sorties.   

Ed Clark, Aviation Program Lead for the Future Force Energy and Power division at the Air Force Research Laboratory, is one of the key contributors to bringing the VPS from concept to operational capacity and is overseeing its production and distribution to multiple Air Force mobility units.

“The meetings we’ve held regarding the VPS have the most interest and attendance I’ve seen in ten years. It just makes sense,” said Clark.

The idea for stackable pallets has been considered as far back as the 1970s; however, it was not fully developed until the AEF Battlelab took on the challenge in 2003. With the help of Al Vatcher, an engineer with the 812th Aircraft Instrumentation Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, they built the first prototype, but it never flew or gained traction in operational units.

Eventually the idea lost steam and was shelved until roughly a decade later, the VPS concept was revived by retired Col. Adam Reiman, who at the time was a doctoral student in logistics at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Subsequently, Brad Anderson, then an Assistant Professor of Logistics Management at the Air Force Research Laboratory, helped get it the attention it deserves by submitting it to an Air Force Operational Energy AFWERX Challenge. 

There are only a handful of VPS units in existence today, but that will change as the Texas Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing out of Joint Base San Antonio starts a small production line.

Their goal is to create 20 units each year for the next two years, costing approximately $27,000 each. According to Clark, any squadron can build their own VPS or have a local certified welding shop make one from the available plans.

One logistics unit out of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling estimated that on specific missions the VPS can save over $16,000 per sortie and decrease their pallet position requirements by 50%. In an Air Force Institute of Technology research paper, Capt. Nathan Carlson of the 28th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, estimates “up to $1.6 billion in savings if the VPS was maximized throughout our logistics network,” which includes semi-trucks. 

Those cost savings also mean less fuel burned per pound of cargo moved and more agile and rapid deployment of combat material or humanitarian aid at a moment’s notice. All thanks to the ingenuity and tenacity of our Air Force team.