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Commentary: Gunfighter innovation empowers Airmen to 'take flight'

Photo illustration courtesy of the Air Force Research Lab, Air Force 2030 Initiative.

Photo illustration courtesy of the Air Force Research Lab, Air Force 2030 Initiative.

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Being a Gunfighter means being an innovator. We got our name because someone, in the thick of it and on the front lines, figured out that sticking guns on an airplane was the best way to get the job done. We have always been about getting the job done efficiently and effectively, our motto reflects that: “Ride Hard. Shoot Straight. And Always Speak the Truth.”

But saying we are innovators and actually being an innovator are two very different things. Defining what an innovator is and what that looks like today seems daunting. After all, it is clear to many that putting a gun on an aircraft was novel at the time. It might seem that innovation is an ever elusive abstract idea and being an innovator is like a dream in which we can’t quite picture ourselves.

Heading with a team of Gunfighters to the 2018 Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, we hoped to better understand what the Air Force was looking for in the “Age of Innovation” and what we could expect from the Air Force of the future. After heading to the trade show at the conference and striking up conversation with a captain at the AFWERX table, I found an opportunity to see firsthand how our Air Force was approaching innovation in a new way through a trip to AFWERX Las Vegas. Joined by a team of Gunfighters from a few of the flighline units, we headed to AFWERX not really sure of what to expect. After a few short days, we left with a better understanding of what our heritage of innovation at the 366th Fighter Wing means in today’s Air Force.

Innovation is simple; it’s finding ways to make the job less painful and perhaps easier. It’s easy to think of innovators as the next Steve Jobs or innovation as the automobile or smartphone, but it really isn’t nearly so complex. It isn’t the next Mars Rover or lightbulb; it really is just finding a new way to solve problems.

In keeping the definition of innovation simple, our team realized that we all have the capacity for creativity and innovation. We began to understand that each Gunfighter, regardless of rank or experience, can provide solutions to problems. We concluded and vowed to bring back the message that it is up to us as leaders, whether through rank or influence, to define those problems, encourage ideas and facilitate solutions. We began to see the potential applications of the information we were receiving through the conference and started to better understand the best way to approach our innovation competition.

We purposefully structured the competition to remain in line with the civilian startup culture, using the structure to find good ideas and empower Airmen to define the problem set and find the best solution using a team of experts. We aren’t just collecting good ideas; Airmen are provided the opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem definition skills in a real world context, as well as the ability to see an issue through a variety of career field lenses. Through the "Take Flight" innovation competition, more than 80 of our Gunfighters submitted their ideas and solutions to problems and we look forward to seeing where these ideas take the Airmen and our wing.

Taking Flight isn’t just about finding ways to better our wing, base, MAJCOM, Air Force, or Department of Defense, we are breathing life into our heritage, providing today’s Gunfighters with the tools to get our long-standing culture of innovation off the ground, ensuring it remains aloft for the Airmen of tomorrow.