Putting fuel bladder prototype to test identifies potential risks, hazards

  • Published
  • By Julie Svoboda
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

The 82nd Training Wing’s Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants schoolhouse conducted first article testing of a fuel bladder prototype developed through a collaboration between Air Force subject matter experts, the Defense Innovation Unit and a commercial partner January 24, 2024, here. The prototype is the latest effort to replace decades-old, obsolete fuel bladders.

Chief Master Sgt. Michael Brancato, Fuels Career Field Manager, watched as a Sheppard AFB fire truck pumped 3,000 gallons of water into the fuel bladder, which was strapped to a cargo loader. A POL instructor then drove the loader in a series of turns and short stops.

“Right now, we're doing mostly the functional stress testing evaluation,” he said. “We performed the fuel sampling portion this morning. So now we're going to fully load it with water to see the effects on the bag and the movements. We have the testing team from Eglin here to help certify this for air worthiness to help us evaluate.”

As part of a fueling system that is loaded onto heavy aircraft, fuel bladders are vital to projecting air power in austere conditions or contested areas.

“This will be loaded onto the C-130,” said Joseph Messick, Petroleum Office Equipment Chief. “We have another pumping module that's sitting out there that will put on the tail. So, this will go up to 3,000 gallons. We can put, depending on airframe, anywhere from two to 310 bags. We could do C-130, C-17 or C-5. It will land at one of the forward operating bases wherever they need fuel. For the C-130, we open the back door and we become your gas station. We pump off aircraft into whatever is needed; we pump into aircraft, we can pump into other storage tanks, pump into large vehicles if we need to. It’s highly versatile.”

The fuel bladder prototype marks the first time the POL career field partnered with the DIU, which uses a different process than conventional government contracting that, in this case, reduced the time from contract to prototype from a years-long wait to only eight months. 

“The Defense Innovation Unit uses a process called the CSO process, commercial solution offering process,” said Laura Azzam, Program Manager for the Energy Sector. “We have a contracting authority, which is called an Other Transaction Authority, that allows us to develop prototypes in partnership with our government partners over a two-year period. Our job is to accelerate the adoption of commercial technology by using commercial R&D dollars instead of taxpayer dollars to do R&D. There's probably technology already in the market that the DOD can use. So, we work with existing technologies to try to get them into the DOD as rapidly as possible.”

Staff Sgt. Robert Edmonds, Fuels Advanced Instructor, has worked with legacy fuel bladders and prototypes. His experience with both allows a unique insight into the value of the testing process.

“I think what we're doing here and testing the equipment is pretty important,” he said. “Making sure that we're actually staying on the cutting edge or innovating as we go because the equipment that we use is very dated and the bladders that we're trying to replace now are from multiple decades ago. So, we are just trying to maintain the standard with the rest of the Air Force.”

Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Bigelow, Fuels Schoolhouse Superintendent, views the testing as an important part of the training mission.

“Our career field has shifted focus back to training,” he said. “Our training is conducted here at Sheppard and offers a unique perspective allowing firsthand knowledge to cadre and students to see and use the newest items the Air Force Fuels team are producing and how the research, training, and development for our community is working. Sheppard is the right fit so we can train on what is being built next. We get to find, fix, break and evaluate any equipment before they operationally fielded. It is the best location for Fuels professionals to train in the most realistic manner possible to get after the U.S. pacing challenge.”