In the not-too-distant past, every time a Canadian Forces airplane lifted off a runway, so did reams of paper ruefully known by crews as the “football.”

The “football” was a stack of roughly 50 pages for a simple, short Royal Canadian Air Force mission, and as much as 150 pages for a longer, more complex sortie. Dutifully printed and carried aboard every RCAF aircraft, the pages were the administrative lifelines crews needed when they travelled: hotel confirmations, cost sheets, crew information, customs clearances, contacts, rental car locations. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

“[The football] was a bit of a pain,” confesses RCAF Capt. Amanda Whalen, formerly the dispatch officer with 8 Operations Support Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

The problem with the football, quite apart from its size, was that much of the information on all that paper became worthless the moment the crews boarded their aircraft.

“Missions often change,” says Whalen. “You’d have delays due to weather or technical issues, and then all that paper is out of date. So the crews are stuck carrying 150 pages of confirmations that are now essentially useless.”

And the problem was about to become worse due to a system upgrade to the dispatch section’s computers. The unit’s existing logistics software wouldn’t work with the upgraded system.

In short, the football was a giant problem begging to be punted – or transformed into a solution with technology.

Enter the Flight Deck, the Air Force’s innovation lab, located in the Back Alley at the Communitech Hub since 2016.

Last spring, the Flight Deck’s then-Innovation Section Head, Maj. Christian Hirt, had heard that Whalen was looking for new dispatch software. Hirt, a pilot on the C-17 Globemaster aircraft, knew as well as anyone how problematic the footballs had become.

Conversations followed, and in April of 2019, a software design team from the Flight Deck made a trip to Trenton to get a first-hand look at the problem and gain a sense of workflows that went into mission planning.

They returned to their lab and within a few weeks had produced a prototype. It was clunky, but it was a start. With crew feedback, improvements were quickly incorporated. A few weeks after that, aircrew were rocking a web-based application called Dispatch, one they could access from their hand-held devices in order to keep track of all the administrative information they’d need for a flight, one that could be easily updated by the crews themselves or the dispatch team at Trenton. No football required.

The new product is now saving time, workload, personnel and money. And the virtuous spinoff is that the working lives of dozens of Air Force personnel have improved. People are … happier.

“The impact to the morale of aircrew has been enormous,” says Capt. Andrew Sheahan, an Air Force navigator and air combat systems officer who, along with Whalen, worked with the Flight Deck team to develop Dispatch. “We are constantly being approached by pilots and other crew members with ideas about the software, where they’d like to see it go and just how generally happy they are that it’s cut down on so much of their administrative burden.”

Whalen has seen the benefits first hand from both sides of the dispatch process, first leading the dispatch team at Trenton, and also as a pilot. She recently joined an operational training unit flying a Hercules with 424 (search and rescue) Squadron.

“I think the reason the product is useful is the way it was designed – this agile process that we used,” she says. “We put it in the hands of the aircrew, and let them take it and try it on the road and provide feedback to the product. It was amazing to see how much people really jumped on board with it and started providing feedback, wanting to have their input about what would make their lives easier on the road.

“So we keep improving the program and [keep] making it as good as we possibly can. That’s kind of the cool thing about the process. You really get out of it what you put in and people really, really got on board.”

For both sides – Air Force personnel based at Trenton and the civilian software engineers and co-op students working at the Flight Deck – the process had the ancillary benefit of opening them up to worlds they didn’t really understand or know about previously.

“Oh, it’s been awesome,” says Chris Young, the Flight Deck’s technical lead who, before joining the Flight Deck in January of 2019, worked on startups out of Velocity and Communitech and before that was at IBM’s research headquarters, the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, in upstate New York. “I have some very good friends now in the Air Force, people I would never have met otherwise.

“I got to go on a flight and it was the most professional thing I’ve ever seen in my life. [Search and rescue personnel] jumping out of a Hercules was more perfect than anything I’d ever seen in my life. I don’t know how someone can appreciate it without seeing them work.”

Young led much of the Dispatch design work, working with two University of Waterloo co-op students, UX/UI developer Nabiha Aziz and developer and product owner Jiaru Cao. All of them had to learn rank structure, chain-of-command and an entire culture that was previously foreign to them.

“One of our mantras is that great ideas have no rank, and we do try to stick by it,” said Cao. “So we call all of the military people that we know by their first name. That kind of speaks to what we’re trying to push in terms of culture.”

Likewise, Canadian Forces personnel who previously had little-to-no exposure to agile design methods or even technology-based innovation suddenly came to appreciate how quickly pressing problems could be solved and new products acquired.

“I attended a Basecamp at Communitech before I was posted to the Flight Deck,” says Maj. Will Handley, who is the Flight Deck’s incumbent Innovation Lead and a former Canadian Forces search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. “My first impression? Can I come work here?”

Eyes have also been opened to a simplified and expedited process for procurement, issues that have long plagued the military due to its size and ties to the federal government’s structured procurement procedures.

“[The culture within innovation circles] is to acknowledge a problem and fix it right away,” says Handley. “It doesn’t linger. It’s not like military people don’t want to do that, too, but they’re often hamstrung.”

The Flight Deck, in effect, has been able to infuse and embed some the culture of Waterloo Region’s entire tech ecosystem into the military.

“In a word, working with the Flight Deck has been wonderful,” says Sheahan. “It’s a radical departure from military software acquisition.

“[Procurement is] typically a very long process for us, where we try and sit around, hypothesize, define all of our requirements up front, submit to industry and we receive a product back that typically fulfills all of those requests and demands, but not always in a way that is intuitive, or powerful or even user-friendly.

“Working through this agile methodology with Chris and his team has given us a product that is very tailored to our processes and takes advantage of [the fact they can] see our workflows from the beginning and build stuff that works for us.

“Dispatch is a massive time-saver.

“The big impact for me is that we’ve gone from a section where we needed six full-time members, and we’re able to get by with significantly less now. It’s dramatically reduced our workload.”

Other projects utilizing the Flight Deck’s assets are in the works, including using technology to make more efficient and cost-effective decisions on aircraft fuel purchases.

“The business case became, if we start buying fuel [at airports where fuel is cheaper], if we start making better decisions as our crew, we’ll be able to save millions of dollars each year,” says Sheahan.

“I think the Flight Deck and their methodology is well suited for dozens, if not more, projects within the military. The level of response that we get from the [lab’s] team is something we haven’t seen before. That they’re able to push new code through their kind of continuous deployment pipeline within, sometimes, days, hours or minutes, is incredible.

“We’re pushing hard to get more resources like Chris and his team because the impact has just been enormous.”